Since Hollywood is consumed with finding The Next Big Young Adult Franchise, it can be challenging for any project to leave a lasting impression.
Luckily, “Divergent” knows what it has in its not-so-secret weapon, Shailene Woodley, who offsets her quiet intensity with a vulnerability not seen in Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen.
Woodley, who found critical breakout success in “The Descendants,” stars as Beatrice “Tris” Prior, a teenage girl in near-future Chicago struggling with her identity.
At 16 years old, she must decide to live among one of five factions, divided among personality traits (Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity and Candor).
Unsure of where she truly belongs, the Abnegation-born Tris is forced to reconcile with the possibility of leaving her selfless family, who aren’t all quite what they appear.
Yet after learning that she possesses characteristics from multiple factions – making her a rare threat to the established order, a Divergent – Tris chooses Dauntless, the faction known for bravery, which is evidenced by the trainees jumping off trains and buildings in a form of parkour transportation.
As she tries to blend in to avoid being discovered as Divergent, Tris meets Four (Theo James), a brooding Dauntless member put in charge of the trainees, who must succeed or face life among the Factionless.
The tracking shots of a transformed Chicago as the Dauntless kids leave their headquarters and take to Navy Pier for a high-stakes game of capture the flag or zipline through the downtown area are breathtaking, though Neil Burger’s directing makes little impression elsewhere.
Along with new pals Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and Al (Christian Madsen) Tris navigates the physical and emotional tests she must pass to be inducted into the faction, not to mention her growing feelings for Four.
All of that may seem like a great deal of exposition, and it is, but thankfully “Divergent” handles it quickly and mostly painlessly (though not for the characters).
Continuing to hide her Divergent status, Tris’s more imminent threats include betrayal from the ones she trusts and snide sociopath Peter, another trainee played by Miles Teller, who skillfully infuses the role with a sense of humor lacking in the novel.
While the film stays relatively faithful to Veronica Roth’s novel, it diverges (no pun intended) when it needs to.
The most significant change was the prudent decision to beef up the role of the subtly diabolical Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the leader of the Erudite faction who manages to steal scenes with just a look.
When Jeanine’s coolly authoritative façade slowly begins to crack, so does the illusion of the neat-and-tidy factions, and the seeds of revolution are planted with Tris on the frontlines.
At 2-plus hours in length, “Divergent” can feel a bit sluggish at times, and nearly every but Tris and Four is in need of a bit more shading, but the movie deftly establishes a fully rounded world that viewers will be eager to return to in “Insurgent” now that things are kicking into high gear.
Like many young adult adaptations before it, the film will live and die by its young fan base, but thankfully “Divergent” doesn’t rest on its laurels.