Katniss has long been the darling of critics and fans alike: a physically strong, intelligent young woman who drives the biggest action movies of the year. We love Ms. Everdeen (and oh, do we love J-Law), and at first, it’s easy to dismiss Tris as a just another Katniss redux. Heck, even their names rhyme.
But let us be clear: Tris and Katniss are not the same woman, and Divergent and Hunger Games are not the same movie. They have their similarities, of course, and the fact that both are products of Lionsgate, the self-appointed godparent of the business of angsty YA-adaptation franchises, allows them a visual and tonal similarity that is hard to miss. But every time these girls and their movies are conflated, we move that much further away from the conclusion we should be drawing from them: that female-led films can move box office numbers as well as any other, if only given the opportunity. There is room for more than one lady-sheriff in this godforsaken tinseltown. So allow me a moment, if you will, to sing the praises of Tris, in her own right, and explain why her character is the one I want my hypothetical tweenage daughters going to see in theaters and dressing up as on Halloween.
Tris is bored. This is the basis of her drive, the reason she chooses to exchange her simple, quiet life for one of rollicking and exuberant violence. She is not driven by love or by sacrifice (the reasons Katniss makes the same choice—but I’m not comparing! I’m not!) She isn’t driven by the desire to help others—in fact, helping others is exactly what she’s tired of doing. Her societal caste, the gray-smocked Abnegation faction, is all about renouncing vanity and always offering to carry other people’s groceries (or something like that—the “faction” system, as originally written by Veronica Roth, is the basic premise upon which the world is built, and is absurdly obtuse: citizens are sorted by personality type into Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, or Dauntless; so named, presumably, to help kids with their SAT scores.) Tris looks at members of the Dauntless faction, with their weapons and laughter and Hot Topic fashions, and she wants to be a part. Consider how rare that is to see in a female protagonist, and how equally unnoticed it goes as a basic given trait for almost every other young male hero.
And about that word, hero—I referred earlier to Tris as a superhero, and it might not be immediately apparent why. But Tris does have a superpower: the “divergence” referenced in the title. To be “divergent” is basically to have the ability to think creatively, which, for reasons unknown, is a skill most people in this universe lack. Tris’s divergence is what makes her difficult to categorize, and what makes her a threat to the unquestioned authority of the faction system. Thinking outside the box isn’t as obvious or glamorous as flight or invisibility or communication with fish, but in this world, it is the most dangerous—and for us, entertaining—skill Tris could have.
But while Tris’s exceeding mental capabilities put her at an advantage to her classmates, her petite stature and wimpy upbringing make her a particularly weak opponent: she spends about twice as much time early in the movie getting punched in the face as she does doing the punching. The Dauntless training system is gender-neutral, which means that we see her matched up against everyone from a six-foot hulkasaur of a girl to the sneering and newly-muscular Miles Teller, who takes a break from being the most adorable addition to the Hollywood heartthrob scene to play a variant on Draco Malfoy. (Zero complaints here.)
Tris, of course, improves throughout her training, finding that what she lacks in physical force she makes up for in quick thinking and deadly aim. And by the time the training reaches its psychological phase (which is a relative cakewalk for our divergent hero), Tris has distinguished herself as the best in the building.
Which is why she gets the guy, of course. Because Four (played by Theo James, who looks he could be the older brother of Dave Franco, or if Dave Franco’s actual older brother was given a serious injection of brute masculinity) does not fall for Tris until she has already proven herself to be the coolest girl around. They don’t have any tense moments or lingering eye contact; he hasn’t longed after her from afar, nor she for him. Four grows to love Tris the same way we do in the audience: by watching her be a goddamn superhero.The cast is rounded out with a core of excellent actors, some fresh (Ansel Adams as Tris’s brother Caleb, Zoe Kravitz as her friend Christina), some long forgotten (whoever cast Ashley Judd as Shailene Woodley’s mother is a genius—the two are practically identical in form and feature) and some, well, are Kate Winslet, who inexplicably channels Hilary Clinton as she masterminds her arch-villainous plans.
Lovers of the original book will be thrilled by visual execution of the film. The set is strikingly faithful and well-conceived, and the costumes are refreshingly logical. A favorite touch of mine is in Shailene’s makeup direction: she begins the movie bare-faced, as Abnegation does not allow even the use of mirrors, but as she learns to appreciate herself, physically and otherwise, she starts to wear makeup. It’s subtle—just a little mascara and blush—but the implications are an important nod to her embracing of identity and femininity previously shunned.
WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD:
If I haven’t made it obvious, much of my delight in this film comes from its endorsement of that femininity. Rather than create a female lead whose qualities defeminize her (coughKatnissokayi’mDONE), here they are simultaneously innate and unobtrusive to her character. I was astonished in particular by two extraordinary scenes that I never expected to see in a teen blockbuster–by the same studio that made Twilight, no less. The first comes toward the end of the movie, when the shit’s finally hitting and Tris is forced to take her kill skills to the field. We hear her name shouted, and turn with the camera to witness an incredible sight: Tris’s mother, running at full sprint, her hair loose and face plain, carrying an automatic firing weapon. The two women reunite and immediately are ducking and rolling and firing from behind corners with steely, uncompromising grace. That visual—of a mother-daughter fight team, delivering direct violence with cool grit—is one I don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing on film before.
The other scene comes from Tris’s final test, a “fear landscape” where she must face her darkest terrors in front of a panel of judges. And right in between the fears of burning alive and of drowning and of vicious flesh-eating birds, there is the fear of rape.
It lasts no more than twenty seconds: Four, by now her boyfriend as well as her mentor, runs his hands along Tris’s body, and she kisses him gratefully. Suddenly he shoves her down; she resists, he is violent, and she fights him off. The scene ends almost immediately, but not before the implication is made clear. At no other point in the movie do we see hints of this type of scenario; never are we made to believe that Tris might harbor scary thoughts about her boyfriend. But this is a landscape of her unconscious fears, and there it is, plain as day: the fear of sexual violation. The simplicity of this acknowledgement–that rape is a tacit feature of feminine fear–is one that I am deeply grateful for.
Of course, Divergent isn’t really the most groundbreaking or intelligent movie of the year—not by a long shot. But that shouldn’t be its expectations. This isn’t the movie that will win Oscars, but it is the one that young teens will be most excited about and invested in, and as that—as the movie you’ll be hearing high-schoolers talk about all year—it is not only adequate, it is exceptional. We’ve come a long way since Twilight, and in many ways the simpering awfulness of that franchise and its wan leading lady is remedied in the strength of this new one. Put aside an afternoon for Divergent, and for Tris Prior. They’ve got a whole lot to like.
Divergent is in theaters now.