In the posters for Divergent, Shailene Woodley has been given the stylized bod of a comic-book sci-action vamp, and her features are as coolly chiseled as her physique. But in the movie version of Veronica Roth's 2011 novel, Woodley, I'm glad to say, is a lot more recognizably human, and that goes for her acting too. Her character, Tris, spends most of the film learning to leap and toss knives and risk death like a badass, and when she puts those skills to the test battling her society's corrupt leaders, there's no doubt that she's a superior, market-tested YA role model, like Katniss in The Hunger Games. But she is also, as Woodley plays her, an intensely vulnerable and relatable character.
Tris, a.k.a. Beatrice, has been raised as a member of Abnegnation, one of five factions in a walled dystopia that was formerly Chicago and still looks, strikingly, like a semiruined concrete-playground version of that city. The members of Abnegnation dress in plain tan frocks, like the Amish, and they're all about puritan self-sacrifice. The other four factions are Erudite (defined by their transcendent knowledge), Candor (who are compulsively honest), Amity (the naturally peaceful), and Dauntless (the fearless tattooed warrior jocks in black in other words, the sect that anyone cool would want to be part of). Beatrice and her peers have the right to choose a faction for themselves (it's like picking a college you can go to Yale even if your folks didn't). But when she takes the test to learn which faction she's best suited for, it turns out that she's in the rare forbidden category known as Divergent, which means she has the qualities of three factions at once: Abnegnation, Erudite, and Dauntless. It may sound silly to say she's an outlaw because she's self-sacrificial, brilliant, and strong all at the same time, but what's really forbidden is independent thought.
Woodley, through the delicate power of her acting, does something compelling: She shows you what a prickly, fearful, yet daring personality looks like when it's nestled deep within the kind of modest, bookish girl who shouldn't even like gym class. Tris chooses to become part of Dauntless not because she has any special athletic skill but because it's her nature to go for broke. The first half of Divergent is a lean, exciting basic-training thriller, with Tris willing herself to do things like jump aboard speeding trains and fight with her bare knuckles. Woodley, at every turn, lets us feel as if we're in her shoes, not so much Dauntless as thrillingly daunted.
The second half of the movie goes on a bit, with too many rote combat scenes. Yet the director, Neil Burger (the fanciful craftsman who made Limitless and The Illusionist), keeps you invested, staging a rise-of-the-savior-heroine plot so that it seems less ritualistic than it does in the Hunger Games films. It helps that the drill sergeant, named Four, is played by Theo James, who's like an unflaky James Franco with a surly hint of T-shirt-era Brando; he brings off the neat trick of playing a hardass who is also a heartthrob. And it's nice to watch Kate Winslet go full ice-blood fascist as the Erudite leader who makes a scarily smart case for a society rooted in the fine art of control. In many ways, she sounds similar to a movie executive, so I'm glad to see the launch of a dystopian franchise in which individuality, as embodied by Shailene Woodley, looks like it could mean something beyond hiply propping up the status quo. B+