An illness has killed ninety per cent of the world’s children. Only a special few remain. Sound familiar? The Darkest Minds is a new entry into the lineage of dystopian teen adventures to be adapted from a successful young adult novel. It is a could-be franchise that probably won’t be, due to talented cast and crew not quite managing to stand out in the cluttered dystopian field.
Taken from the first in a five part series by Alexandra Bracken, the film marks a live-action debut for Jennifer Yuh Nelson, a filmmaker noted for having been the first woman to direct a major Hollywood animation – Kung Fu Panda 2. Her producers are Stranger Things’ executive Shawn Levy and his Arrival co-producer Dan Levine. With It composer Benjamin Wallfisch behind the score, the film is born of strong grounding indeed.
Known for playing Rue in fellow – stronger – adolescent drama The Hunger Games, Amandla Stenberg leads a likeable quartet of misfits as Ruby. She’s one of the survivors of a devastating contagion – Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration – that has wiped out the vast majority of children in the world, leaving the rest with box ticking superpowers. Each child is identified by an eye colour – from telekinetic blue eyes to super smart greens and electronic golds – with Ruby being among the most deadly: the mind-controlling orange eyes. It’s a well-intentioned, if somewhat forced, metaphor that ties the concept with millennial diversity ideation. As one youth puts it: ‘We don’t segregate by colours here; we respect our differences but we’re all the same.’
To that end, Nelson has drawn her cast with a skin-deep neutrality. What a shame, then, to find each neatly distributed in ethnotypical roles. Beach Rats’ Harris Nicholson is the only white male of Ruby’s gang so takes a leading role in the group’s agency; his compatriots are a wisecracking, smart – read: bespectacled – black kid (Skylan Brooks) and tiny, mute Japanese girl (Miya Cech). At the outer-reaches, Gwendoline Christie is wasted, whilst Mandy Moore feels like a presence awaiting a more prominent role in future outings.
A stronger metaphor in the film is one that parallels the angst, evolution and acceptance that engulfs characters with growing up. On the cusp of adulthood, the film’s teen heroes cope with circumstances which seem highly specific but replicate relatable issues. Whilst this is, naturally, the prerogative of each in the endless stream of YA wannabe Harry Potters – a knowing exchange references the boy who lived in Chad Hodge’s script – The Darkest Minds does better than most. ‘I can read minds,’ says Ruby, before quipping: ‘I can barely understand my own thoughts.’
The film’s strongest stretch is its opening third, in which characterisation still rules over the inevitable weight of destiny. Later set pieces are effective – and admirably put together by Nelson – but lack distinction. Most affected is the development of a romance that never feels genuinely earned.
It is as the film increasingly furrows through generic contrivances that engagement proves harder to sustain. Ruby’s line: ‘Do you think we’ve survived this by following the rules?’ is highly ironic.