The fate of Tris’s people rests in her hands. A brash young man with some retrograde, sexist attitudes stands between her and their salvation. She has him cornered and defenseless. She won’t shoot, he sneers. He isn’t the first man to suggest it. He probably won’t be the last.
“Why do people keep saying that?” she asks, disgusted. She shoots.
It’s not to kill, but it’s something. Maybe it’s everything. Because the point seems to be that it’s not just the men in Divergent who think the dainty teenage girl holding the gun must be play-acting badassery, it’s the men off the screen as well. And Tris’s act of shooting when called upon, her indignance at the idea that her nurturing side (her Abnegation instincts, in the movie’s parlance) won’t let her stand up for herself and control her destiny, is calling all that testosterone bullhockey on… well being exactly that!
Let’s take a moment to take stock of things. Divergent is a medium-verging-on-huge hit and a most definitely not-bad movie in a time when the popular media narrative is “Girl Power!” Not the Spice Girls sassy, peace-sign waving sort, but the “This girl will shoot you in the face, so back off” sort. When Catching Fire, Gravity, and Frozen all hit big at the same time, it was like a cap being pulled off a shaken bottle of soda. With the hissing stream of carbonated liquid being a shout of “You see! We told you!”
If we buy into popular media narratives, we’re a few years out of the Bella era of female-driven narratives, and a few years into the Katniss era. And after a year in which films based on Harry Potter fan-fiction that sure read a lot like Twilight fan-fiction; based on that other book by Twilight‘s author (and, hey, I loved this particular bomb, which doesn’t save it from the distinction); and based on a book about a teen witch all burst into a flames in the light of the sun – essentially the year in which paranormal romance seemed to take a stake through the heart – it seems safe to say that, if these things do come in waves, we’re in the “badass girl takes on that dystopia like nobody’s business” wave. We’re in it hard. We drool over Michonne. Katniss made all the money last year. And here comes Tris, who seems to be, who has been accused endlessly of being, and who will continue to be called, a Katniss clone.
Which yes, sort of. Tris is a demure loner in a dystopian future America that puts its children through a ritualistic sorting and culling in order to keep society in line and prevent another uprising. And during this process, Tris, like Katniss, gets made over into a Glamazon killer, both exceling at playing the system as its been established, rising up the leaderboard and getting unexpectedly high marks despite low expectations, while also ultimately excelling at breaking the system down through self-sacrifice and uncommon bravery.
But also no, she’s not Katniss. Every female dystopian hero that arrives on the scene from here to eternity will not be Katniss, though they may be lumped in with her, so influential is her cultural sway. Katniss is the creation of author Suzanne Collins, and Suzanne Collins did not write a character whose only characteristic was “action heroine.” Katniss is her own beast, a very unique character, almost sociopathic in her single-mindedness, completely overwhelmed by her position as a living martyr and unequipped to handle public life. That’s not every girl. It’s Katniss. Katniss sure did break the mold, but other characters need to fill in the new mold in the old one’s stead. So while Katniss defined something new, Tris normalizes it.
You see, Katniss is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I probably don’t need to recite her character particulars here, so let’s just agree that she was never very comfortable as a poor Appalachian girl in plain dresses – even before she gets in the arena and starts making the big gestrues that turn her into a star and then a symbol, she’s a rebel, hunting out of bounds, shopping at the black market. In the arena, Katniss becomes her true self. Not the killing other kids part. But definitely the hard-edged survivalist with a pragmatic streak part.
Tris is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. She is offered a choice. According to her test, she can be any of three things – she can be a brave warrior, an ambitious egghead, or she can be what she was raised to be, a generous nurturer. But she has to choose one. She can’t be all three. (Because dystopian society laws, something, something…) And she chooses, after years of plain food, plain clothes and plain living, to be a wall-climbing jock. The way they film those kids, jumping from trains, always outdoors, always high-fiving, who wouldn’t if they only had one pick, at least a little? This film is, in its set design and narrative thrust, essentially about an Amish girl on the most ridiculously influential Rumspringa imaginable. She’s trying on a new identity because society allows it, but at heart, she’s never going to be just the one thing she chooses, though choose she must. And so she dresses the part, putting on a fair facsimile of a Katniss costume, and doing the difficult things asked of her. But she is more complex than that.
In a way, this is a story about a girl who is not Katniss – who is sociable and kind and who, when given a choice, opts to be Katniss-like for a little bit in the Dauntless ranks, even changing her name from Beatrice to the more badass sounding Tris, because it seems like the right thing to do when you’re a female teenager and the pressure’s on to take ownership of your own existence. And for a bit, Tris makes due with this new costume she’s wearing to fit in – she finds friends (a sassy truth-teller, a nerdy underachiever, a… boy who also hangs around with them…), crushes on a boy, earns acceptance within the Dauntless ranks. But, at least in this first film, she never stops being distinctly Tris, as played by the distinctly, uncommonly talented Shailene Woodley, who is also not, as comparisons might lead us to believe, the next Jennifer Lawrence. Tris is sensitive, warm, low-key, and friendly. Katniss, the single-minded, laser-focused symbol of fierce womanhood kicked down the door, so now Tris can just sort of be herself. Which is refreshing.
And so yes she kills and maims, but its with a sensitivity and purpose that Katniss lacks. Katniss controlled her fate in the arena (sort of), but never the firestorm surrounding her, which spiraled out of her control, turning her into a symbol. Tris, however, collects the data necessary, and begins, in this film, to make informed though difficult decisions about how to better her station and her world, a beautifully degraded future Chicago that suggests what Revolution would have looked like if every episode had its pilot’s budget.
Deaths hit hard in this movie, and they come fast. Some of them are caused directly by Tris, and they force her to confront the skills she’s accrued during her time being molded into a soldier by her Dauntless drill sergeants. Some deaths are caused indirectly by her, one in particular knocking the wind out of the audience, partially because of how hugely unexpected such a death is, and partly because Woodley is so enchanting in her mourning. And some are sacrifices made to protect her, but never at the cost of keeping her in the dark, as people so often do with Katniss.
And while the major deaths do have diminishing returns, coming so hard and fast as they do, they all smack you across the face in the way you thought the kids’ deaths in the Hunger Games arena might. I don’t want to spoil things, but suffice it to say, this is a brave little franchise-starter. Unlike Chamber of Secrets and Catching Fire, which were allowed to be (very well-written) retreads of the first installment’s plot and story beats, I have no idea what the next Divergent movie will look like. It won’t be anything like the plot of Divergent! Early on, Divergent falls into familiar YA-fiction rhythms as Tris gathers around her a collection of allies and friends who we’re certain will support her as she makes bigger decisions in the sequels to come, and suffice it to say, the film does not play it safe with those relationships. If you expect every Hermione-like striver to always stick around by the protagonist’s side, than there are many surprises for you in Divergent.
And yes, Tris falls in love, but that’s almost a footnote to her story.
Let’s dive into that actually. Tris falls in love with a hunk named Four, her mentor at the Dauntless camp who also proves to be Divergent, meaning he too can not be defined by just one thing. And it’s just Four she falls for. There’s no romantic triangle here. Not even a hint of one. (I’ll be so mad at this series if it introduces one.) There’s merely Four and Tris, two people with uncommon bravery and compassion, getting closer and drawing strength from each other as the stakes rise. And the fact is, this doesn’t have to be a romance. There’s a lot of glances filled with… not so much repressed longing as mutual understanding, as well as a rather long, kind of hokey scene dedicated to their first kiss, but outside that and a climactic embrace, the film is pretty disinterested in Four as an object of desire and much more interested in him as this symbol of being the right kind of leader, as opposed to his direct counterpart, Eric, the resident Dauntless douchebag.
But having these two not just be close compatriots but lovers lends one interesting facet to a film that otherwise would be just fine without a makeout session. It’s interesting to watch the movie, after being so much about the sexual politics of violence, dip briefly into being about the sexual politics of sex. Tris does two intriguing things. When Four trusts Tris enough to tell her about his tattoos and his past (and show her his abs, of course), things get a bit hot between them. But Tris cools it down by saying she doesn’t want to rush into anything. Which, in a dystopian future where you feel pegged for a death that could come at any moment, is both noble and a bit… overly optimistic? It felt strange for Tris to suddenly go that route, as though, if Twilight had left us with nothing else, it had imprinted upon the YA genre that no matter how tough a heroine is, she must be she must remain firmly virginal. Or consequences…
But soon after that, the film delves into its centerpiece, an extended sequence where Tris conquers her fears (induced by a chemical as part of a mental endurance test meant to prove her place in Dauntless) not by pulling her typical Erudite trick of realizing none of it is real, but by using what is around her to defeat her fear. (Which also seems sort of Erudite, right? The factions are never the clearest thing, but you let the pop psychology slide…) It’s all stuff we’ve seen before – birds, fire, mud, drowning – until we suddenly find ourselves in Tris’s rape nightmare. And it’s very powerful for the film to acknowledge that while fears do take the form of often-irrational phobias – fear of heights, of tight spaces, of drowning – they also come from completely rational feelings of powerlessness at the hands of other humans. This film doesn’t do much with the idea that Four has some demons in his past, inflicted on him by a very powerful figure, though it seems we’ll see more of that next go-round. More pressing in this film is the notion that Tris will have her agency taken from her, bending to the wishes of the state until she is washed clean of her own identity. Faction before blood, as the film puts it. This takes the form of a fantasy in which Four does not respect Tris’s wishes and begins to take advantage of her, and one in which the film’s baddie asks her to massacre her family. It feels shoehorned into the film in the moment, but it’s impressive that the film went there, that it realized that if you explore the top four fears of a young woman, all four of them might not be of angry animals or asphyxiation – one of them is likely to involve men exploiting her vulnerability.
So what’s most important about Tris falling in love is that she weaponizes that love, using it to defeat the brainiacs who think they can erase people’s individuality by reminding them of what makes them special. In Hunger Games, loving anyone else is dangerous, a liability, because it puts you and them in danger. Katniss’s love for Peeta is, for so much of that story, “love” in big quotation marks. Woodley brings to Tris this quality of being a girl who you would truly buy as a brave and intense physical specimen when that’s needed (and she gets that power from the more unexpected parent), but also as a kind and giving nurturer whose defense when a gun is at her head is to accept it and admit love. The film monopolizes this power too much within her and her beau (the factions vaguely resemble the stereotypes in the Breakfast Club, but instead of arguing that each one of us is a brain and an athlete and a basket case and a criminal, it argues that, on a brain chemistry level, only Four and Tris are all those things, and all the other Dauntless drones really are defined by their bravery and nothing more) which is one of many weaknesses in the film, but I can’t argue that, in spite of its superficial similarities to the Hunger Games films (which, let’s remind ourselves, the first film was not all that), I wasn’t wooed and impressed by this new world and the woman at its center. She shoots without hesitation, but she will take shots without hesitation as well, and being able to do both in equal measure truly is divergent from the cinematic norm.