THE DARKEST MINDS
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.