Friday 10 August 2018

"The Darkest Minds" (Guardian 10/08/18)

The Darkest Minds **
Dir: Jennifer Yuh Nelson. With: Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore, Harris Dickinson, Bradley Whitford. 103 mins. Cert: 12A

At what point will our dystopic Young Adult narratives transform from escapist entertainment to essential schooling on how to survive any coming Dark Age? This late, mid-ranking cycle entry stumbles fortuitously across its most potent image: that of children being separated from their parents and ushered at gunpoint into state-operated holding camps, a bleak vision that doubtless felt more fantastical when author Alexandra Bracken penned her source novel back in 2012. Its power is muffled, however, by a growing reliance on shopworn YA tropes and a general air of bet-hedging blandness. The pieces of a potential franchise are put in play here without the stakes being raised or pulses quickened.

The silly startpoint is a condition called Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration – its acronym a boon for fans of Lee and Herring’s “Ian News” sketches – which has obliterated much of America’s youth, and left survivors with Jedi-like mind powers that pose an obvious threat to the country’s guardians. Heroine Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) flees the camps to land squarely between two boys: non-threatening proletarian pin-up Liam (Harris Dickinson, dialling back the complexity of last year’s Beach Rats) and sneering President’s son Clancy (Patrick Gibson). As has become YA-standard, this relatable playground melodrama is accorded the same dramatic weight as the end-of-the-world stuff.

The further Ruby travels from custody, the more The Darkest Minds looks like an exercise in recycled teen wish-fulfilment. Our girl gets a Katniss-like makeover involving a flowing red dress, while the second half is an extended layover at a post-apocalyptic summer camp where everybody takes a telekinetic twirl. The leads are sympathetic – particularly Hunger Games alumna Stenberg, long on the verge of a breakthrough – but director Jennifer Yuh Nelson seems overly impatient to get onto Bracken’s later books, and the spectacle she generates is tentative at best, as if the studio wasn’t yet sure whether to go all-in on the budget. Interesting flickers, amid a fudge of mild peril. 

The Darkest Minds opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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