THE DARKEST MINDS Review: Decent Past The Expiration Date
I'm not going to hate on The Darkest Minds for being what it is. Yes, the zeitgeist moment of YA dystopian fiction has passed. Yes, many of these franchises borrow elements from one another to the point of being able to easily confuse their respectively convoluted yet allegorically simple premises. But also, I am at least a decade older than this film's target audience and my personally jaded attitude toward the genre comes from a place of seeing the market oversaturated with these similar stories since I was young enough for the allegories to feel personal, and just because The Darkest Minds is served for consumption after the genre's expiration date has passed is not enough reason to dismiss it out of hand. This isn't to say that it doesn't have problems, many of which it shares with its forebears, but so far as this particular brand of genre fare is concerned, The Darkest Minds is a middling, almost worthy example.
The pitch meeting for the book series probably started with the summary "It's Divergent, but all the kids are X-Men," and with a healthy dose of Magneto-Was-Right ethos, you have the basic thrust of The Darkest Minds. In the near future, a mysterious disease wipes out ninety percent of all children, with the remaining children surviving with special powers. There are five total variations, denoted by various colors and levels of danger. Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) is one of the Oranges, mutants with vaguely defined mind manipulation abilities that are killed immediately for being the most dangerous, but Ruby survives by brainwashing her handler into thinking that she is a non-threatening Green and is thus sent to a camp for children where the walls are made of fences. (We're still calling those cages, right?) After years of living in hiding, Ruby is discovered as an Orange and broken out by a benevolent adult (Mandy Moore), only to discover a vague ulterior motive that pushes her to run away from her apparent savior and team up with a group of teens trying to find a new home in the desolate wasteland of rural America.
Now, on a basic, structural level there are a lot of problems with The Darkest Minds' setting and plotting. Adults in this world are uniformly evil to the point of comic farce, and a handwaving line of dialogue explains that the world economy collapsed from a lack of children but doesn't clarify how exactly those two things are related. Kids' eyes glow the same color as the relative danger coding of their superpower as an overly blunt visual metaphor, and the obliviousness of everyone to the orange glow of Ruby's eyes is notably convenient. Also convenient is the ease with which Ruby stumbles into situations that further her understanding of her world and her ability to forge plot-necessary relationships, which is somewhat symptomatic of this being the first act of a larger story but is still tedious when a feature-length film is devoted to half-assed worldbuilding.
But when you step back from the genre trappings that restrict the story in ways that the audience for these movies expects, this is a reasonably well-made film, despite the inherent stupidity and sequel-baiting baked into the script. Jennifer Yuh Nelson has a strong grasp on visual storytelling, leaning heavily into the idea that adults fear the power of cooperative adolescent action to fight for their rights and offering a powerful fantasy of resistance against that oppression. Nelson is also a good performance director, particularly when it comes to utilizing Stenberg, who deserves a long career after the commitment she demonstrates to this role. Stenberg gives emotional depth to a character largely written as a cipher, demonstrating a wide range that even makes her lack of chemistry with love interest Harris Dickinson almost believable. It's not transcendent work, but if this springboards Stenberg into a spotlight with stronger material, that alone will make this disposable little film worth it.
It's hard to say how teens today will receive The Darkest Minds when The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner are already at their fingertips, but it is worth noting that it's refreshing to see one of these films feature a main cast predominantly consisting of people of color. Watching Amandla Stenberg continue to rise as a star will make this film and any sequels it spawns an interesting artifact in her career trajectory, but the film itself is fairly rote and stock standard. The Darkest Minds may be a banal curiosity, but there's enough here to potentially interest the teens it hopes to inspire.