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Photo by Jaap Buitendijk - © 2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC

I’ll leave it to sociologists to explore why so many of today’s youth-oriented novels—and the films they spawn—are bleak, if not downright nihilistic. Divergent is the latest example, based on Veronica Roth’s best-seller, and like other stories of its ilk it is set in the near-future, just near enough to be creepily recognizable. Fortunately, this story has an empathetic heroine and an intriguing premise to keep it afloat, and enough twists to sustain it through more than two hours’ time. Even though this isn’t my preferred brand of entertainment, I was consistently engrossed.

In the wake of a devastating war, the survivors in Chicago have built a wall around the city and divided their population into five groups, or factions: the smart ones (Erudite), the honest ones (Candor), the selfless ones (Abnegation), the content ones (Amity), and the ones who like to live on the edge (Dauntless), who serve as the peacekeepers.

Shailene Woodley plays Katniss—oops, I mean Tris—who’s grown up in the Abnegation sector but feels out of place. At her coming-of-age ceremony she opts to join Dauntless and soon discovers that the indoctrination process is unforgivingly brutal on the body and mind. The rookie class establishes some camaraderie, but they are regularly abused by their trainers, who explain that they have to be tough to survive and best serve the public. Of the two young men in charge, one (handsome Theo James) can’t hide his attraction to Tris. Meanwhile, life in Chicago reaches a crisis point as the Erudite make a power play, led by cold-blooded Kate Winslet.

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Photo by Jaap Buitendijk - © 2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC

The underlying message of Divergent—that those who don’t conform are always seen as a threat—isn’t original, but always relevant. The key roles are well cast, with good parts for Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, and other young talent. Tony Goldwyn hasn’t much to do as Woodley’s father, but Ashley Judd comes through strongly as her mother. Director Neil Burger and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor never wander off the key narrative path; I just wish the climactic turn of events (which I can’t discuss) made more sense.

But never mind: the sequel is already being prepared, so just like Twilight and The Hunger Games, it doesn’t matter what any critic has to say. It just remains for the public to weigh in.