The Darkest Minds
Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore, Gwendoline Christie, Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks, Mya Cech,
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…unlikely to win over any converts outside its target demographic, but its a solid effort nonetheless.
In the latest adaption from the fecund ranks of the YA section of the bookstore, the children most definitely are not the future. At least, not in the view of the adult population, who start to eye the next generation or two warily when a disease rips through the youth that kills most of them and leaves the survivors with a variety of psychic powers, colour coded for your convenience.
The most dangerous ones, “Oranges”, are telepaths, and are killed on detection by a panicking state that is rounding up its use and putting them in concentration camps, and our heroine, Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg, with Lidya Jewett as the younger Ruby) is one – in the film’s opening movement she accidentally wipes her parents’ memories of herself. Incarcerated, she escapes execution by psychically convincing the authorities she’s a hyper-intelligent “Green” – not nearly so dangerous but still subject to imprisonment – and hides herself among the rank and file inmates.
That’s a situation that cannot last, of course – this is apocalyptic youth fiction, not Wentworth. After her cover is blown, Ruby finds herself on the run with a mixed bag of fellow young offenders, including sarcastic Green Chubs (Skylan Brooks), young mute Blue (they can manipulate electricity) Zu (Miya Cech), and dreamy Orange (telekinesis) love interest Liam (Harris Dickinson). Making their way across a largely deserted America, the kids have pinned their hopes on finding an enclave of rebel youth led by the legendary “Slip Kid”, who is said to have escaped custody an unprecedented four times. In pursuit are bounty hunters called Trackers, embodied by Gwendoline Christie’s driven, hard-bitten Lady Jane (barely more than a cameo, sadly), and also the League of Children, a militaristic resistance movement.
Talking about these kind of light SF coming-of-age tales is always detail heavy because that’s where a lot of the literary joy is found – the world-building. They all have their little factions, powers, tweaks, and names, whether it’s Harry Potter‘s Houses, The Hunger Games‘ Districts, or whatever the hell was going on in Divergent. For teen readers, it’s like being able to join a clique without fear of rejection – you basically get to tell the Sorting Hat who you are for a change, and anyone who doesn’t see the value in that probably had a much more enjoyable high school career than the rest of us.
What that means is that these stories, whether written or filmed, have a few certain basic functions for their intended audience, and if they hit those marks, everything else is just bells and whistles. The Darkest Minds, adapting Alexandra Bracken’s book by screenwriter Chad Hodge and directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, fulfils its remit. There’s a dystopian setting, a monolithic state to rail against, a range of likable characters to identify with, some earnest, doomed love, and the requisite jargon heavy window dressing, all peppered with some decent action beats and capped with a big, dangling sequel hook.
At points, The Darkest Minds distinguishes itself from the pack (though it never transcends the genre the way that the Harry Potter franchise and, arguably, The Hunger Games did), chiefly by being notably darker and a little more complex than its genre mates. The narrative’s dubious attitude towards the League of Children hints at a mature approach to the notion of child soldiers, and the violence on display occasionally edges towards horrifying – at one point an Orange forces a camp guard to commit suicide, at another whole swathes of children are immolated (but not in close detail). There’s a little more going on under the hood here than the more dismissive takes would have you believe.
The Darkest Minds is unlikely to win over any converts outside its target demographic, but it’s a solid effort nonetheless. It’s a shame that its poor US box office indicates we won’t be getting the clearly intended sequels; standing alone, it’s an awkwardly truncated experience, but considered as the opening chapter of a longer saga, it’s promising.