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Left to right: Skylan Brooks, Miya Cech, Amandla Stenberg and Harris Dickinson in The Darkest Minds.

Daniel McFadden

  • The Darkest Minds
  • Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson
  • Written by Chad Hodge
  • Starring Amandla Stenberg and Harris Dickinson
  • Classification PG; 105 minutes

rating

When you’re 15, it can seem like the entire adult world is against you – which may explain all those apocalyptic YA stories that pit youths against nefarious grownup conspiracies. Certainly, Alexandra Bracken’s The Darkest Minds, the source material for a new movie of the same title, fits in a similar dystopian category as The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner series.

Still, as the movie version chugs its way through its emphatic early scenes, establishing that some dread disease is killing America’s children while the few survivors have been sent to a camp patrolled by armed guards, you may need to stop yourself from complaining that this fantastical allegory is emotionally hysterical. After all, in the real world, the U.S. government has been busy caging children at its southern border.

Writer Chad Hodge has adapted Bracken’s book; Jennifer Yuh Nelson directs, and, despite those serendipitous contemporary resonances, their first act is unimpressive. Coded as green, blue, yellow or orange according to the level of the unnatural superpowers the disease bestows upon those who survive it, the children terrify the adult world. The storytelling is bald and the logistics remain vague. The adult characters, especially a sadistic prison guard, are laughably overblown and the simplistic dialogue betrays the script’s YA roots.

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Zu, Ruby, Liam and Chubs enter an abandoned mall in a scene from The Darkest Minds.

Daniel McFadden

But as our heroine Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) escapes the camp and meets up with a trio of other youths, the movie takes flight. Ruby is an orange, which means she can both read and change minds. (She’s mastered the old Obi-Wan Kenobi trick, and can get rid of bounty hunters with her version of “These are not the droids you are looking for.” )

The nerdy Chubs (a sweetly spunky Skylan Brooks) is green, which means he’s highly intelligent; the silent little Zu (a kinetic Miya Cech) is yellow, meaning she has electromagnetic powers. And their gentle leader Liam (the pleasant Harris Dickinson) is a blue who can move objects with his mind. If Stenberg is often stiff in the role of the earnest and unhappy Ruby, the three others offer performances that feel warm and real. What works well here are the relations between the four, including a budding romance between Ruby and Liam, and the bigger kids’ tender care for Zu. She, in turn, does her bit for the group by scavenging Twinkies and cheesies from abandoned stores.

The plot proves satisfyingly twisting as the foursome find their way to a rebel camp where escaped children live in hiding, and now the mind-reading theme comes into its own. Nelson, a former animator who has previously directed the Kung Fu Panda sequels, handles the gentler moments more successfully than its ugly ones; when government troops inevitably find the camp, we have to suffer through an unfortunate climax of fire and brimstone before reaching an intriguing ending. Bracken wrote three other books in the series as well as several short stories, and the film’s bittersweet conclusion is strong enough to provide real narrative impetus for the inevitable sequel.

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