From “The Hunger Games” to “Harry Potter,” dystopian young adult science fiction has become a favorite device for unpacking the complexities of the real world. The new film “The Darkest Minds,” based on the novel by Amanda Bracken, written by Chad Hodge, feels like a bit of a late entry, even as it positions itself for sequels. Although the film, directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson making her live-action debut, is rather choppy and never ascends to the levels summited by Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, there are still plenty of juicy political metaphors to chew on.
Amandla Stenberg, who broke out in “The Hunger Games,” returns to her dystopian teen roots starring as Ruby, a young girl ripped away from her family as the country is gripped in a crisis after adolescents are wiped out by a lethal disease. Ruby has unexplainably powerful telepathic abilities. She and the other survivors, who all possess some supernatural powers, are transported to brutal labor camps and color-coded by their abilities. The super-smart are green, telekinetics blue, electricity manipulators yellow, mind-readers orange and the killers red.
Kids considered “different” and “dangerous” are separated from their families and held in dreary detention camps – the current political relevance is almost too on the nose (though no fault of the filmmakers). But there’s a refreshing bold streak of anarchy throughout. Our heroes are ostracized and oppressed young teens taking matters into their own hands, fighting their way out of captivity, finding fellowship in each other and working toward creating a utopian world of communal living. The moments of radical anti-government and anti-capitalist sentiment pop off the screen, indicating something far more interesting underneath.
But “The Darkest Minds” feels hacked to bits. Bradley Whitford appears as President Gray, who claims his son as been cured of the evil illness, but his appearance is strangely brief and you have to wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s a similar situation with Mandy Moore, who has about 10 minutes of screen time as a member of the League, a group trying to save the kids from the camps. Ruby doesn’t trust the League, and we spend much of the movie wondering just why the League is untrustworthy, or maybe trustworthy? One would also surmise much of the subplot was cut out, and the lack of story cohesion shows.
The film is lacking so much backstory. We’re simply just told most of what we need to know without being shown. Ruby’s ability to see the memories and dreams of others serves as a convenient storytelling device to display character backstory and motivation without actually weaving it into the script itself.
The cast of talented up-and-comers far exceeds the thin concept and often silly writing of “The Darkest Minds.” Skylan Brooks steals the show with much-needed comic relief as the nerdy Chubs. Sternberg is a lovely and naturalistic performer, and the film hinges around her love story with the telekinetic Liam, played by British newcomer Harris Dickinson, who stunned last year in Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats.” His sensuality adds heat to their chemistry, and the film is far more about their connection than it is about plot or story mechanics, which become hopelessly muddled.
“The Darkest Minds” never commits to one specific message. It shies away from actually saying anything interesting and stumbles in the execution, privileging a young love story over everything else. Despite its radical potential, it’s disappointing to see this story fall back on what’s considered typical teen stuff.
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