Arriving in theaters a half-generation late, the YA adaptation The Darkest Minds is curiously behind the times and right on the money. The dystopias of the high Hunger Games era may now seem passé, but damned if every multiplex in America isn't going to be showing kids locked in cages by the government this weekend. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson's first feature, based on book one in a series by Alexandra Bracken, isn't likely to inspire a new age of teens daydreaming about how romantic it might be to wage guerilla warfare against an oppressive government.
Its mythology is too dense and too borrowed, its worldbuilding flimsy, its narrative logic at times confounding: Why must the hero Ruby, played by the skillful and appealing Amandla Stenberg, sacrifice her own desire so that her true love does not have to join the organized resistance to the kid-caging government? The issue goes beyond the fact that such both-sides-are-bad handwringing doesn't wash after 2016: The emotional logic of the book has not survived the process of adaptation.
But much of what does make the movie is engaging, especially once the leads, a band of superpowered teen misfits in an America where most children have died of a mysterious plague, find the time to discover each other. Yuh Nelson proves adept with her young actors, drawing out relaxed and detailed performances. Camaraderie and crushes fizz agreeably among these teen outlaws, and the film's middle section, which finds four kids escaped from government camps tooling around Virginia in a stolen van, has a welcome hangout vibe.
An assemblage of TV clips sets the stage: Ninety percent of all children have died within the space of a month, with the survivors gaining a variety of superpowers that the government catalogs in a color-coded chart ripped right from the Bush administration