Middle school is not a terribly happy time for most people. If there was one thing from those years worth returning to, however, that would be the inextricable giddiness brought on by a skillfully timed on-screen kiss between two movie stars. When done right, the kiss would alleviate your woes, as you willingly lost yourself in the passion of a couple who had finally found each other. “Divergent,” for better or worse, reverts our maturity to that of a romance-desperate tween.
“Divergent,” the first film based on the young adult trilogy written by Veronica Roth, opened this past weekend to hordes of eager fans. Set in dystopian Chicago, the film follows Tris (Shailene Woodley), a sixteen-year old about to “choose.”
After a recent war, the city’s residents were split into five factions based on personality: Abnegation for the selfless, Erudite for the intelligent, Candor for the honest, Amity for the peaceful, and Dauntless for the brave. On the appointed day, sixteen-year olds take an aptitude test to determine their faction. 95% of testers are placed in the group where they were raised. Tris, a buoyant and confident teenager from Abnegation, tests “Divergent,” meaning her mind works in many ways and she cannot be reduced. This diagnosis is the kiss of death: Leaders of the city hunt Divergents for fear that they will “break the peace.” Tris must decide her destiny.
Tris chooses Dauntless, and her brother chooses Erudite. All initiates must compete their way into Dauntless. The physically and mentally weakest will be thrown to the streets, “faction-less.” Although naturally weak, Tris squeaks her way through the first round of physical training. When the screening becomes mental, Tris’ special abilities as a Divergent allow her to succeed quickly. Her triumph triggers envy, violence, and suspicion from Dauntless leaders and initiates. Amidst her attempts to be accepted, she falls in love with Dauntless trainer, Four (Theo James), a fellow Divergent. He coaches her through the rounds and, finally, the faction accepts her.
Tris’ primary appeal as a protagonist stems from her independence, bravery and drive to succeed. Shailene Woodley fulfills this role faithfully, looking thin but never frail, strong and powerful on screen. What’s disappointing, then, is that Tris’ strength is constantly undermined by the attention paid to the romance between her and Four. Sidelong glances and casual skin grazes drive the film forward. People in my theater were practically bouncing in their seats watching the sexual tension build between the two characters.
Despite being 19 and 22 years old, respectively, my intelligent friend from Wesleyan and I were giggling with anticipation whenever Tris and Four shared the screen. Halfway through the film, the long awaited moment finally occurs. After gazing at the inked symbol at the base of Four’s neck, and requesting if she can ask a question, Tris says quietly: “What’s your tattoo of?” Four responds with a coy smile, and: “You want to see it?” A woman in front of me of at least 50 years old shouted, “Yes!”
I may have laughed at her outburst, but I was every bit as thrilled that their coupling finally occurred on a physical level.
Funnily enough, it was a remarkably tame kiss. The two kiss on a balcony. He is shirtless, she is not, and then he sleeps on the floor. It was a frighteningly satisfying moment to witness. A middle school “small victory.” It wasn’t in her head, you imagine. He loves her! Are we college students? Should we know better? It does not matter. “Divergent” brings us back.
“Divergent” is rich with sentimental moments and a few frightening ones as well. The primary adult female leads, Tris’ mother Natalie (Ashley Judd) and the evil head of Erudite, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), are both strong, active characters. Jeanine, although evil, is never given a male counterpart. She is the most fearful of any other assailant or villain, both kind and cruel, reminiscent of Lyra’s mother in “The Golden Compass.” Natalie, although loyal to her husband, sneaks out to meet Tris when she misses her, and ultimately saves Tris’ life. In fact, the strength of the female characters is a saving grace of the film. Despite the heavy attention invested in Tris’ love life, she is a rich, courageous character. She braves Dauntless tasks first, throws herself in front of flying swords—multiple—for a friend, and fights initiates twice her size for their training. She is quick, smart and capable. Her romance with Four proves essential, but Tris always holds her own.
In fact, what may be most upsetting about “Divergent” is not the blockbuster aesthetic or the awkward omissions in realism, but the failure to let a female protagonist stand on her own. Did we need Peeta and Gale in “The Hunger Games?” Do filmmakers assume a protagonist cannot suitably stand as a role model unless a handsome male actor is interested in her? Is it not enough to be strong, considerate, courageous, and intelligent? Tris saves her family, protects her friends, and stays true to herself. She is the ultimate hero. Four only deters attention.
“Divergent” is exactly what you would expect from a young adult action flick. Shailene Woodley may not be as charming as Jennifer Lawrence, but the character Woodley plays is more engaging. If you need a truly compelling reason to go see “Divergent,” however, Tris and Four are worth every penny of your ticket. Go if only to listen to young and middle aged women cheering, “Yes!” at that intoxicating first kiss.