The West

City faces great divide

Is there anything scarier for a teen than having to choose the school subjects that will determine his or her career, to declare their future and proclaim their identity before being old enough to drive?

Of course, being de-friended on Facebook, forced to wear your mother's dress to the school ball or discovering that your favourite band is also your dad's favourite would freak out some youngsters even more. But you get my drift.

This is the very relatable metaphor at the heart of Divergent, the first film adapted from Veronica Roth's bestselling Hunger Games-ish series set in post- apocalyptic Chicago in which the surviving population is divided into five factions depending on their psychological profile.

Once a year every 16-year-old in the once-glittering lakeside metropolis takes an aptitude test to reveal which faction he or she is best suited to join and, as a consequence, which job they will do.

There's Abnegation for the selfless, Amity for the peaceful, Candour for the honest, Dauntless for the brave and Erudite for the intelligent (apparently there's no Indolent for teens who can't get out of bed in the morning, Intoxicated for those who sneak out and get drunk on school nights or Promiscuous for those who can't keep it in their pants).

Every once in a while a youngster displays qualities associated with more than one faction. These "freaks" are labelled Divergents and are shunned because their peculiarities could destabilise the whole system (curiously, it is the same premise as The Lego Movie).

While Divergent doesn't have the sensational idea of teenagers killing each other for a benumbed television audience, a futuristic fantasy about youngsters being channelled into careers because of test scores and, in Shailene Woodley's Beatrice Prior, a young woman who doesn't fit into one category is very appealing, especially for audiences for whom The Hunger Games is a little brutal.

After rejecting her family, who are members of Abnegation and devoted public servants, the feisty Beatrice (or Tris) joins Dauntless at their inner-city boot camp, where she trains to be a warrior and is put through a series of challenges to see if she will survive.

It is a struggle at first and Tris gets her pride dashed on more than one occasion, especially when frightening, muscle-bound trainer Eric (a startlingly beefed up Jai Courtney) gets involved.

However, Tris has a guardian angel in the camp, an athletic hunk named Tobias (strapping Brit Theo James) who helps her become a fearless warrior and, when her secret about being a Divergent gets out and she becomes a target for conniving, ambitious Erudite leader (Kate Winslet), passes on survival skills to her.

Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) brings nothing particularly distinctive to either the depiction of ruined Chicago or the training sequences, which take up a good deal of this first movie (like all films based on book series they are heavy on set-up and light on plot development and complication).

But in Woodley he has a strong young actress with a proven track record (she was superb as George Clooney's daughter in The Descendants and Miles Teller's girlfriend in The Spectacular Now) and an athletic bearing that more than matches The Hunger Games' Jennifer Lawrence.

Her romance with James' dreamboat warrior Tobias will send boys that dare to see Divergent sliding a finger down their throats - that's the group sign for the faction called Embarrassment - but it is sweet and swift and has none of the prolonged anguish of Twilight (indeed at almost 30 James is almost the Older Man, which adds another dimension).

However, like The Hunger Games, this first Divergent movie spends too little time describing Tris' world, a place in which buildings are crumbling and weeds growing yet everyone is using cutting-edge computers and the women all look like they stepped off the catwalks of Paris or Milan. Clearly when the war broke out the fashion houses and Silicon Valley were spared.

Indeed, I'm not sure which of the groups provide the beautifully tailored suits worn by Winslet's Erudite leader Jeanine (a wonderfully benign name for a super-villain, like Martha, Ethel or Helen). Is there a Miuccia Prada or Karl Lagerfeld lurking amongst Abnegation, Amity or Candour?

Methinks that the next episode in the series, Insurgent, will reveal a sixth faction - Fashionista - and it will all make sense.

The West Australian

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