[20 March 2014]
Back in the ‘80s, John Hughes created a cottage industry of high school comedies. The teens were confused and vulnerable, striving to establish their identities according to rigid cliques and hierarchies. Suddenly adolescents were on full cinematic display, at once creating and tapping into a lucrative market, and studios quickly cashed in on the prospect.
Today’s high concept teen film is both different and the same. The idea of “high school’ has become entirely conceptual. In YA franchises or on the CW, post-devastation societies in the not too distant future subdivide young people even more brutally, assigning them to fight one another for nothing less than the survival of our species. Such sagas revolve around one gifted teen specimen who challenges authority and disrupts the system, while falling in love with a worthy companion.
The shift from then to now, both subtle and overt, might be understood by the target demo as a confirmation of their self-images (they really are at the center of the universe), but it’s plainly a business decision, what it takes to sell a book-TV-film series. But for all the frequently touted good news (high school kids are reading lots of books about themselves basking in futuristic glory), the trend is also, almost immediately, disappointing, cynical, and above all, repetitive.
And so, the clones: Divergent, despite and because of its name, is awfully familiar. While Harry Potter breaks kids into groups according to magical proclivity, Twilight by race, and The Hunger Games by region, Divergent breaks them into factions according to “virtue.” There are the Erudites, the big thinkers, all dressed in IBM blue, devising ways of unseating the current powers, that is, the Abnegations, who give up their egos in order to help others.
The Amitys are the hippie-farmer faction, cultivating their crops, presumably in a giant cloud of weed smoke; the Candors, roughly the litigious members, are ever dressed in white; and, the fun-loving Dauntless are protectors of the realm, who jump screaming from moving trains and run pell-mell through crumbling Chicago high-rises like a group of six-year-olds after a double espresso.
Teens proclaim undying allegiance to one category or other, joining for life and entirely on their own if their families happen to belong to a different group (their oft-repeated mantra: “Faction before blood”). Woe betide you if none of these groups speaks to your sensibilities (and here I must note there is absolutely no faction for writers, free thinkers or artists), as you shall be cast out as “factionless” and forced to wear rags and eat from garbage cans with your uselessly unfocussed existence.
The wrinkle is that there are certain individuals—known with fear and loathing to those in power as “divergents”—who embody equally all five of these traits, and therefore are a threat to the conformity enforced by the clans. Our heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley), born into a family of peace-loving Abnegators, is just such an individual, but longs to belong to Dauntless, the college frat-like assemblage whose members appear always to be scampering from one toga party to another.
Tris’ situation makes for a predictably episodic plot, as she makes her way from one non-option to another, accompanied by her similarly divergent and so, worthy companion, Four (Theo James). Their adventures, adapted from Veronica Roth’s source novel faithfully by the film’s director Neil Burger, underline they inhabit a teen society at its most apprehensive, with kids asked to make quick decisions to determine the outcome of the rest of their lives.
Of course, with its strict classifications and elaborate rituals, this system of assignments can also easily be seen as a metaphor for choosing after school activity (soccer or piano? chess or a job?) or, after high school, a college, when young people might imagine themselves free at last from their parents’ confinements. (The film doesn’t take into account the fate of all the poor millennials stuck living in their parents’ basements upon graduation or, of course, the poor millennials who are, like, poor.)
As in The Hunger Games, of course, the kids’ choices here come with the added weight of grave physical danger. Here that danger reinforces the importance of class. If they choose to “drop out” of one of these schools, those around them have no further use for them, and so they’re left to waste away alone in their miserable rags. This won’t be the fate of Tris, of course, even if she chooses to drop out. Instead, she becomes an icon of resistance, the ideal high school movie hero who worries conformist adults and teens alike.
Still, the logic is not absolute. Divergent makes clear that while Tris might initially be freed by her choice of faction and subsequent break away from her loving parents, her cause is constantly bolstered by the selfless actions of many other higher-ups, including her own mother (Ashley Judd). As much as Tris and her friends are desperate to create their own lives, it turns out they still need the protection and support of a large network of older benefactors.
They might be on their own, but, like Molly Ringwald before them, they are most assuredly never alone. In this film, as in the others like it, the drapery might seem new and exciting, but the house remains remarkably unchanged.