‘The Darkest Minds’ is the Same Old Young Adult Song and Dance

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I went into “The Darkest Minds” thinking it was a “X-Men” spinoff. It deals with kids who have been ostracized from society once they are revealed to have obtained superpowers under mysterious circumstances, and it is being distributed by 20th Century Fox which also distributes the “X-Men” movies. With this in mind, I kept waiting for the main characters to yell out “mutant freedom” as loudly as those teenagers from “Red Dawn” cried out “Wolverines!” at any given opportunity. Lord knows the “X-Men” franchise shows no signs of slowing down even after the dramatic conclusion of “Logan.”

Well, it turns out “The Darkest Minds” is not an “X-Men” movie, but instead another adaptation of a best-selling young adult novel which takes place in an apocalyptic future. Written by Alexandra Bracken, this novel led to a series of others, so clearly Hollywood has set its sights on another potential franchise. But while “The Darkest Minds” might have seemed enthralling on the page, it comes off as just another young adult adventure on the silver screen. After the burnout of the “Divergent” franchise, I figured Hollywood would have finally tired of taping into the young adult book market, but these movies do still represent an a strong opportunity for studios to reach out to most desirable of demographics.

Once again, we are thrust into a dystopian future where the pandemic I.A.A.N. (Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration) has killed 98% of humans under the age of 20. The rest who have survived develop amazing psychic powers under mysterious circumstances, and we all know how quick the world is to react to those people who are different. These children are quickly rounded up and sent to internment camps where they are separated from their families and identified by colors. And yes, there is a President of the United States (played by Bradley Whitford) determined to find a cure for this epidemic, but it is no surprise to see him flaunting a phony child reform program which those brainwashed my certain news channels are quick to believe in. Sound familiar? I mean, heaven forbid “The Darkest Minds” reflect today’s reality in any way, shape or form, you know?

Among these children is Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl who accidentally erased her existence from the minds of her parents. On a scale, which looks a lot like the Homeland Security Advisory System, she is listed as an orange which classifies her as the most dangerous of the kids afflicted with psychic powers. But thanks to her mental powers which help her perform a mind trick much like the kind Obi-Wan Kenobi performed in “Star Wars,” she is able to escape the mandatory execution her kind gets. But even she knows it is only a matter of time before she is found out.

For a time, I thought “The Darkest Minds” would become the most politically subversive movie since “They Live,” but it eventually devolves into just another young adult adventure which is like so many we have seen previously. It features a strong and demographically desirable female character who looks to be the one to save humanity and/or dominate society in a way those in power are eager to take advantage of, and the story ends on a cliffhanger as the studio is unsurprisingly eager to make a sequel. But watching this movie reminded me of a little tidbit I read in Premiere Magazine back when it was in print as it summed up another potential franchise in a short sentence:

“’Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…’ and ends.”

Ruby manages to escape the camp with the help of the kindly Doctor Cate Connor (Mandy Moore), but when she feels Cate may have other plans in mind for her, she flees and meets up with a group of kids who have also been afflicted with psychic powers and are just as demographically desirable. This group includes the rugged Liam Stewart (Harris Dickinson), the highly intelligent Chubs (Skylan Brooks), and the electrifying Zu (Miya Cech) who has since been rendered mute. As you can expect, Ruby and Liam get the hots for one another, and its hard not to laugh at the romantic scenes they have as their dialogue threatens to be as awkward as what Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman were forced to utter in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.”

Everything in “The Darkest Minds” feels like it was borrowed from some other movie. The kids discover a radio signal alerting them to a haven for I.A.A.N. kids, and it seems stolen from a similar scene in “28 Days Later.” The dance scene where Ruby and Liam get a little more intimate kept reminding me of the giant rave scene from “The Matrix Reloaded,” and not in a good way. Ruby’s ability to erase memories from the minds of others feels like a direct steal from “Superman II” as Clark Kent found a way to cure Lois Lane of her heartbreak. I know Hollywood movies are seriously lacking in originality these days, so this one ends up looking extremely desperate for ideas as a result.

When the kids get to use their mysteriously acquired powers, their eyes light up a certain color, and I kept waiting for Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” to start playing on the soundtrack. As for the powers they possess, I was not particularly impressed with them as they are much like the kind in every “X-Men” movie. I do have to say, however, that Zu doe a more impressive job of channeling electricity than Jamie Foxx ever did in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

But perhaps the most damaging aspect of “The Darkest Minds” is the endless number of plot holes which the dinosaurs from “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” could have been quick to escape through. In a time where kids are being hunted by the government, how did Ruby and her friends manage to acquire a hotel room? When the kids invade a mall which has been abandoned for some time, how could they possibly find a new and unexpired bottle of Vitamin Water in it? And when the main characters arrive at a haven for kids of their kind and discover the person who leads it, shouldn’t this have raised their suspicions almost immediately? It is questions like these which make this young adult adventure unbearable at times to sit through.

For what it’s worth, “The Darkest Minds” fares better than some of the other young adult adventures I have seen in recent years. It proved to be more entertaining and memorable than “The 5th Wave,” and I was more interested in checking this one out than I was in watching any of “The Maze Runner” movies. Amandla Stenberg does give a very strong performance as Ruby, and she makes us invest fully in her character’s endless conflicts and dilemmas. It was also great to see Gwendoline Christie show up as Lady Jane, a bounty hunter of superpowered teens. Her character is essentially Captain Phasma from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” but without the helmet. Christie is a thrilling presence here, and that’s even though she disappears from the movie far too soon.

“The Darkest Minds” ends up traveling down a cinematic path which has been trodden on more often than not, and what results is a motion picture which is coming out five years later than it should. Even its target audience must be worn out from these different variations of the same story as nothing new is brought to the table. Despite the efforts of the filmmakers, this young adult adventure is inescapably ordinary, and I don’t think we will be seeing a follow up to it in the near future.

However, I do have to take the time to award Wade Williams with the John P. Ryan award for overacting in a motion picture. As the brutal military leader called The Captain, he chews the scenery with his endless snarling at others, and I could not help but laugh hysterically. Clearly this is not going to go down as his best work, but here he was never less than entertaining.

* * out of * * * *

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‘Young Adult’ Deals With a Serious Case of Arrested Development

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Young Adult” comes to us from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody who gave us “Juno,” but this is a very different movie. This collaboration of theirs is a bruise-black comedy starring Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a writer of young adult novels which resemble those “Sweet Valley High” books many read years ago (I did not). She finds out her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) has become a dad, and she travels back to her hometown in a mission to steal Buddy away from his wife and rekindle their long-lost romance.

Both Reitman and Cody dare us to share some time with a most unlikable character. Mavis is a recent divorcee who spends her mornings chugging down Diet Coke, her nights getting drunk on premium whiskey (Maker’s Mark should see an increase in sales from this movie), and she can barely hide her contempt for the town she grew up in. That she writes young adult books is a metaphor for her arrested development as her best years were in high school, and she has never gotten past them.

Theron is one of the best actresses working in movies right now, and her performance as Mavis Gary is one of her bravest. This is not a likable character, but Theron finds the humanity within Mavis, and this makes us want to follow her journey. While we despise Mavis’ desperation in reclaiming a past which has long since passed her by, Theron digs deep into the pain and depression which has long since engulfed this character, and she succeeds in making “Young Adult” more unforgettable than it already is.

But as great as Theron is, she is almost outdone by comedian Patton Oswalt who plays Mavis’ former classmate, Matt Freehauf. His character got beaten up very badly in high school, and his injuries have kept him from moving forward in life. Oswalt inhabits his character fully and never allows Matt to turn into a caricature. His sense of humor acts as a defense against the hurt he can quickly be reminded of, and he too finds the humanity in a character who could have easily turned into a cliché.

Cody’s script is excellent in mining the humor out of incredibly awkward and pitiful situations. This is a cathartic story which perfectly captures the dynamic between those who have moved on from high school and those who have not. This feels like a very personal script for her as it ponders those formative years which define us more than we want them to. While we would love to see those popular kids suffer tremendously, we can’t get past the sadness of Mavis’ current situation.

Reitman bravely moves out of his safety zone with this movie. As with his other movies, he succeeds in making all the characters seem as real as those we know in real life. While the beginning may seem slow and unnecessarily cold, he brilliantly highlights the sad state of Mavis’ life as much of it has been stolen from her.

Whether or not you think “Young Adult” reaches out to all those who loved “Juno,” it does show off the tremendous talents of Reitman and Cody. What results is a movie which dares to go down roads we would rather not revisit, and it finds a humor and humanity many will not see coming. Some will strongly dislike this movie as its main character is far from likable, but you don’t need likable characters to make a good movie, let alone a great one.

* * * * out of * * * *