So You Think You Can Think Freely? - "Divergent" not divergent enough, but Woodley anchors it

Divergent (2014) 
143 min., rated PG-13.

"Divergent," based on Veronica Roth's trilogy of books, arrives a little late to the party when there has already been an oversaturation of heroine-leading screen adaptations targeted at the YA demographic. It shares a passing resemblance to the utopian world of "The Host," the segregated society, training and physical tests from "The Hunger Games," the group sorting from "Harry Potter," and the special "chosen one" from "Star Wars," "The Matrix," "Ender's Game," you name it. A stew of nearly plagiaristic ideas, the film risks not defying categorization or standing apart from the pack with a distinct identity. For a while, though, "Divergent" comes into its own with a compelling heroine, a couple exciting set-pieces, and the universality of what it says about human individuality in a conformist world.

In the dystopian future of a fenced-in Chicago, post-war society has been divided into five virtue-based factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intelligent). As the faction system goes, every teen must take a test to decide where they belong in society, leaving their families behind ("Faction before blood" is society's mantra), but ultimately, one makes their own choice. If you test to fit into more than one faction, you are considered a "divergent," and divergents are deemed as not only free-thinking individuals but enemies of the state. 16-year-old Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) currently lives in Abnegation with her kind parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) and brother (Ansel Elgort), but she doesn't feel like she belongs. She has always dreamt about the fearless, thrill-seeking life of Dauntless, witnessing the soldier-like members parkouring up buildings and jumping on and off of moving trains. After sitting nervously in a chair to take her aptitude test, Beatrice receives inconclusive results and discovers she is rare — divergent. Tori (Maggie Q), the one administering her test, tells her to keep it hush-hush or she will be eradicated. On Choosing Day, an even more-nervous Beatrice decides to leave her parents and join Dauntless. Renaming herself "Tris," she reluctantly undergoes a number of initiation tasks, requiring all transfers to push their bodies to the breaking point under the training of the stolid Four (Theo James) and brutish leader Eric (Jai Courtney). Tris is able to show no fear in her simulation tests, but if she doesn't move up in the ranks, she will be kicked out of Dauntless and left "factionless" (impoverished and the lowest on the totem pole). And if someone finds out that Tris is divergent, she's dead.

Director Neil Burger (2011's "Limitless") and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor economically set up the potentially convoluted rules and world-building of the source material's premise. They hit on some fascinating details, like how those in Abnegation are only given so many seconds to look in a mirror as to reject vanity. The viewer might wait patiently for the story to move beyond physical challenges (knife-throwing, one-on-one fighting, and a "Capture the Flag"-type game) and get down to Tris being figured out, but the film is never less than involving as it centers on Tris. Fortunately, "Divergent" is about more than a teenaged girl finding herself a love interest, and there's no love triangle to speak of. To the Erudites, primarily leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), conformity will help secure harmony in Chicago, whereas human nature is seen as weakness. Tris frees herself by not following in her parents' footsteps and going where she wants to belong. She's the most human because she's her own person and defies being defined by one virtue. The romance between Tris and Four is easy enough to digest and doesn't come out of nowhere, but still seems to exist more out of adolescent-pleasing obligation than a deep, natural connection.

At the film's start, Beatrice (before she becomes Tris) doesn't seem capable to be Dauntless material, and, physically, Woodley doesn't seem convincing to be a fearlessly athletic fit for that faction as Jennifer Lawrence was as Katniss in "The Hunger Games" movies. However, Woodley has such a mental strength and that is what is so integral to her arc from selfless caregiver to physical warrior. Readable and grounded, Woodley retains a spunky resolve and innate intelligence as Tris. She's so emotionally open and instantly appealing, bringing the film a rooting interest and much-needed emotional resonance. There's one scene, however, in which Jeanine asks Tris if she knows of any Divergents in the Abnegation faction and it seems like a weaker take; Woodley is almost too open when she should be keeping her emotions closer to the vest. As Fouryes, like the number, though on occasion, it distractingly sounds like "Thor"—Theo James comes across as another pouty-lipped hunk-of-the-month at first but, with a cool, brooding charisma and smoldering intensity, evolves a bit once he shows shades of uncertainty and vulnerability.

The way the rest of the impressive ensemble is used is pretty uneven. Of the coed initiates, Zoë Kravitz only makes a real impression as Tris' likably plainspoken friend Christina, and Miles Teller collects several laughs with his wicked personality as Peter, a former Candor who bullies Tris, or, as he dubs her, "Stiff" (a diametric position from his romance with Woodley in "The Spectacular Now"). As Tris' parents, Judd is warm and affecting, but Goldwyn is underutilized. A fierce Maggie Q utters exposition without making it seem like that's her sole purpose as tattoo artist and Dauntless member Tori, but as brutal Dauntless leader Eric, the brawny Courtney veers between intimidating and ridiculously one-note, his all-black wardrobe threatening to make him look like an emo Hot Topic employee. Finally, in the prime antagonistic role of the enigmatic, "peacekeeping" Jeanine, Winslet is slyly suspicious and understated without playing it for camp. The actress alternately keeps the snarling to a minimum and yet, in what can be attributed more to the writing, there's little more beneath her surface menace and icy poise.

A steadily paced 143 minutes without feeling interminable, "Divergent" has a solid setup and an engaging journey, only to rush to a more generic, anticlimactic payoff, despite a crowd-cheering knife throw. When certain characters die, there isn't a palpable sense of loss due to their interchangeability, although there is one exception, sold by Woodley's reaction of shakingly raw emotion. When Tris goes under for her simulation tests and enters her own fear landscape, director Burger executes such scenes with nightmarish danger. They aren't quite to the degree of Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street," but one can't help but be reminded of those dreamscapes when our heroine evades a swarm of crows by rolling into a puddle of water that turns into an ocean and then a glass tank filling up with water. There is also some palm-sweating fun when Tris zip-lines from the John Hancock Center and across the city, flying like a bird but coming thisclose to hitting other buildings on the way down. Given Burger's modestly sleek vision, the production design and costuming are rather simple (i.e. gray and baggy for Abnegation, black and close-fitting for Dauntless, and pantsuit uniforms for Erudite) but still differentiate each faction. Of its heroine-against-society ilk, "Divergent" may be more diverting than divergent, but it's also more mature than juvenile. It fits the bill, so that's a step in the right direction before "Insurgent" and "Allegiant" come around.