X-rated teens

SFX - - Contents - Stephen Kelly

Teens? With su­per­pow­ers? You never know, it could catch on.

re­leased OUT NOW! 100 min­utes | 12a Direc­tor Jen­nifer Yuh Nel­son Cast amandla sten­berg, Har­ris dick­in­son, Gwen­do­line Christie, sky­lan Brooks

There are ob­vi­ous echoes of the X-Men – and many other Young Adult sto­ries – in The Dark­est Minds, Jen­nifer Yuh Nel­son’s film about a dis­ease that has wiped out 90% of Amer­ica’s chil­dren, leav­ing the re­main­ing 10% with a range of feared spe­cial abil­i­ties. (Not to men­tion its strik­ing vis­ual par­al­lels with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, with the sur­vivors be­ing sep­a­rated from their parents and caged in camps). The film’s strengths lie not in orig­i­nal­ity, but in a re­fresh­ingly sen­si­tive ex­e­cu­tion.

Adapted from Alexan­dra Bracken’s 2012 YA novel by Way­ward Pines’ Chad Hodge (with in­put by the au­thor), the story fol­lows the tragic life of Ruby Daly (The Hunger Games’ Amandla Sten­berg), a 16-year-old who, as a child, woke up one morn­ing to dis­cover that she’s ca­pa­ble of not only con­trol­ling and read­ing peo­ple’s minds, but of to­tally wip­ing them as well; hence her parents sud­denly for­get­ting who she is.

It turns out that Ruby is what’s clas­si­fied as an Orange, a sur­vivor so rare and dan­ger­ous that gov­ern­ment re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion camps have been given or­ders to ex­e­cute them in­stantly. Hav­ing es­caped and gone on the run, she falls in with a band of fel­low fugi­tives, who are on a road trip in a van to an ap­par­ent safe haven. They com­prise Zu (Miya Cech), a small Yel­low-classed child who can con­trol elec­tric­ity; the wise­crack­ing Green ge­nius Chubs (Sky­lan Brooks); and the hand­some, no­ble Liam (Har­ris Dick­in­son), a Blue who can move ob­jects telekinet­i­cally. (Above Or­anges there are also the fear­some Reds, but it would be a spoiler to re­veal what they do.)

So far so fa­mil­iar, but what re­ally sells The Dark­est Minds on-screen is the ef­fort­less charm and chem­istry of its four cen­tral char­ac­ters, who bond and talk in a way that feels be­liev­able and au­then­tic. This es­pe­cially goes for the ro­mance be­tween Ruby and Liam, which feels play­ful and sweet – es­pe­cially in the way that their friends pick up on the mu­tual at­trac­tion be­tween the two – with­out ever com­ing across as schmaltzy or forced.

The tone in gen­eral, in fact, cuts a strik­ing fig­ure in the re­cent YA film land­scape. The Dark­est Minds has a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist, like The Hunger Games, but her power is not vi­o­lence. It is set in a dystopian world like The Maze Run­ner, but it is de­cid­edly less jagged and mas­cu­line. Its cen­tral con­cept of split­ting up youths into dif­fer­ent so­cial groups is sim­i­lar to Di­ver­gent, but the con­cept never threat­ens to over­ride char­ac­ter. The Dark­est Minds is, for all its spe­cial pow­ers and themes of teenagers be­ing ren­dered pow­er­less by an au­thor­i­tar­ian

The tone cuts a strik­ing fig­ure in the re­cent YA land­scape

state, mostly an in­ti­mate road trip ro­mance. And it works.

This could be at­trib­uted to the in­volve­ment of Stranger Things pro­ducer Shawn Levy, who knows a thing or two about how to nail con­vinc­ing teenage dy­nam­ics. But the fact that The Dark­est

Minds is that rar­ity of a big-bud­get YA film di­rected by a woman – one of the first since Cather­ine Hard­wicke’s Twi­light in 2008 – shouldn’t be dis­missed ei­ther.

Nel­son, whose back­ground is in an­i­ma­tion (her big­gest film to date be­ing 2011’s Kung Fu Panda

2), makes an im­pres­sive live-ac­tion de­but here. But while ac­tion se­quences such as a car chase that then morphs into a tele­ki­netic set-piece cer­tainly prove thrilling, it’s the dreamier, qui­eter mo­ments – such as Ruby try­ing on a dress for the first time – that linger in the mind.

This is per­haps why the fi­nal third feels rel­a­tively flat, with the road trip giv­ing way to the des­ti­na­tion: the safe haven in which both the quar­tet and the film set­tle. There’s a lot to like in this sec­tion – in­clud­ing a vil­lain whose en­ti­tle­ment is res­o­nant for a va­ri­ety of rel­e­vant rea­sons, a grand and imag­i­na­tive tele­pathic bat­tle, and an end­ing that proves painful and poignant. It’s just a shame that they’re marred by a mo­men­tum that slows down to some­thing more con­ven­tional and melo­dra­matic than what came be­fore, with the kind of love tri­an­gles and be­tray­als that sig­nal a broader, more ob­vi­ous YA story.

To quote Chubs in a mo­ment of dis­il­lu­sion­ment: “I kind of wish we were back in the van.”

In the book, the van is called Black Betty, af­ter Ram Jam’s 1977 hit; in the film, it’s been re­named Blue Betty.

It had been a bru­tal Black Fri­day.

De­spite all hav­ing pow­ers, the log still im­pressed them.

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