The Movie Guru: Despite great cast, script hampers ‘The Darkest Minds’
‘The Darkest Minds’
Rating: PG-13 for violence including disturbing images and thematic elements.
Screenplay by: Chad Hodge, based on the novel by Alexandra Bracken.
Directed by: Jennifer Yuh Nelson.
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore, Gwendoline Christie, Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks, Miya Chech, Bradley Whitford and more.
Guru’s Grade: Two stars.
When will Hollywood finally realize that it takes more than just summarizing a novel to make a good movie script?
That’s the biggest flaw with “The Darkest Minds,” the latest attempt at bringing young adult dystopian fiction to the big screen. Though the characters are engaging and some of the ideas are more relevant than ever, the plot feels more like a hurried synopsis rather than an actual story. That makes the dramatic development suffer, which also makes it harder to care about the larger trilogy the movie is inevitability hoping to kick off. Rather than being absorbed in each new development, I mostly just wanted to skip to the end to see how everything worked out.
The plot feels like X-Men by way of current events, with a virus that kills 90 percent of children and gives the other 10 percent potentially dangerous powers. The surviving 10 percent are taken away from their parents and locked in camps, with the most dangerous ones killed outright.
Ruby, one of the “dangerous ones” who survived because she managed to hide her power, is about to be discovered when she escapes the camp. With the help of other teens who are also on the run from the government and bounty hunters, the group tries to survive their enemies and find out if there’s any place safe enough to call home.
Given the stories that have popped up in the news over the past year, the early scenes in the camp are both particularly relevant and that much more chilling. The helplessness of the children and teens in the face of the guards is by far the most disturbing thing about the movie, and a more careful exploration of the idea of imprisoning children might have elevated the movie to profound, moving relevance.
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Young Adult Protagonists
Unfortunately, the creative team had an entire novel’s worth of plot to speed through. A painfully small number of Hollywood screenwriters seem to realize that novels and movies are structured almost entirely differently, and you do a story more justice by making the necessary adaptations rather than trying to simply shoehorn in the whole book. Screenwriter Chad Hodge unfortunately falls into the latter trap, condensing what must have been whole chapters into scenes so relatively brief they add little to the overall story. There’s no chance to build anything, because the movie is too busy checking off a chapter list.
The main characters, and the performances of those portraying them, are the biggest draw for the movie. Amandla Stenberg does a good job both of portraying Ruby’s fear and showing how she moves past it, and her utter heartbreak is a big part of what makes one later scene so searing. Harris Dickinson is a delight as Liam, with the perfect balance of sweetness and bravery that any young aduly heroine could want in her leading man.
Chubbs, played by Skylan Brooks, offers a wonderful touch of humor that never devolves into a joke. And, though her character never says a word, Miya Cech manages to make young Zu utterly endearing. Together, the four of them are among the most likeable young adult movie protagonists I’ve seen.
I only wish they’d been in a movie worthy of them.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at email@example.com.