At what point will dystopian YA narratives stop being escapist entertainment and start to become essential schooling on how to survive a coming dark age? This late, mid-ranking entry stumbles 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 the novel on which the film is based 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 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 material.
The further Ruby travels from custody, the more The Darkest Minds seems like an exercise in recycled teen wish-fulfilment. Our girl gets a Katniss-like makeover involving a flowing red dress, while the second half of the film is an extended layover at a postapocalyptic 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 on to 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.