' Cinema Romantico: Divergent

Monday, March 31, 2014

Divergent

There is a moment in "Divergent" when our teenage protagonist, Tris (Shailene Woodley), formerly Beatrice, enters a cavernous mess hall with her pal, tentatively seeking out a place to sit down and eat. When they do, a character conspicuously referred to as Four (Theo James) labels them "transfers", and that's when it hits you. She may be a soldier in training, but really she's a high school student who just transferred from Shermer to Rancho Carne and she doesn't know at which lunch table she's supposed to sit.


Based on the youth adult novel by Veronica Roth, the world built by "Divergent" at first glance would appear no different from the other fictional futuristic societies where catastrophe of one sort or another has left the world at the mercy of Totalitarianism. If viewed this way, the film (and perhaps Roth's book) might be blandly realized, an apocalyptic version of Chicago in which its remnants are visually non-distinct and its various themes glaringly on-the-nose. But, "Divergent" is not intended as an allegory of any political or economic system, but of youth's social hierarchy.

Indeed, the world, as told to us in Tris Voiceover, has been divided into five factions of convenient names - Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite. Each faction's costumes functions as hammered-home symbolism, not unlike the combat boots of the "criminal", the letter jacket of the "athlete", the khakis of the "brain", the pink blouse of the "princess", and the unkempt hair of the "basket case". Each person is born into a particular faction and then, at the age of sixteen, is forced to choose between retaining his or her current faction or joining another. Tris was born Abnegation, a faction in which her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) play major roles, but she chooses Dauntless. So, she is forced to forgo selflessness for gung-ho bravery, resist passivity for aggressiveness, and learn to punch and kick and throw knives like Danny Trejo. Tris, however, as she quickly learns, does not truly belong to Dauntless or, for that matter, any faction. She is Divergent.

This is essentially a description of the high school. The Principal authority exercises centralized control over all aspects of student life. The students themselves, suppressed by the controlling authority, are separated into concrete factions - the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads - and the system - in the film's own words - "removes the threat of anyone exercising their independent will." Except for Divergents.

Of course, we would all prefer to see ourselves as Divergents, apart from the innumerable cliques, able to exercise free will and exist independently of the prevailing structure. To do so, however, risks ridicule and exclusion, and that is precisely what happens to Tris. A rival Dauntless initiate (Miles Teller) may as well begin every scene in which he appears by cruising up in his dad's convertible. Chief villain Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) is the homeroom teacher out to get the troublemaker.


Four, however, is the heartthrob, Jordan Catalano to Tris's Angela Chase, though he does not so much "save" her as see her for what she is (literally!) and aid her quest of self-discovery. Never is this more apparent than in a majestic sequence that finds her soaring across the city's burnt-out landscape aboard a zip line, a thrilling homage to "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower's" band of misfits flying through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Amidst such an outsized moment, Woodley still lets you into the middle of it, feeling her release from society's endless spate of suppositions. Her whole performance, in fact, is the film's foremost asset, selling moment after moment without overselling, marking the transition from reticent to fiery by letting us sense that fieriness was actually her birthright.

That said, "Divergent" is still very much an action picture. Perhaps too much, bogging down in the final-third as it disappointingly becomes just as concerned with a societal uprising as with its hero's journey, and director Neil Burger's sequences of hand-to-hand combat and gun battles turn frustratingly repetitive and unimaginative. Yet, at the same time, it forces Tris to consider life apart from her parents, a coming-of-age rite, and specifically reminds us that even though cinema perpetuates the notion dystopias are close at hand, they have been in existence within high school hallways for lo so many years.

It also reminds us that factions have been around at least since the Capulets and the Montagues, never more adroitly than in a sequence between Tris and Four on a glimmering balcony where they share a kiss. They finish and Tris says: "I don't want to go too fast." It's cheesy. It's also perfect. It's exactly what Molly Ringwald would have said.

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