It’s been a good year or two since the YA movie boom started to die down a bit, and it feels like there’s now a little more room for a teenage genre story to come in and make an impact. Still, you’d be forgiven for feeling like we’re covering old ground early on in The Darkest Minds, especially when it features such familiar story elements as “every kid gets put in a group” and it’s all very X-Men, but it’s worth sticking with because Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s (the Kung Fu Panda films) live action debut has visual imagination, energy and an awful lot of heart.
It all kicks off with a plague that sweeps the nation’s children. Kids either die or they start developing powers. These abilities range from the essentially harmless, like increased intelligence (greens), to the potentially dangerous, like telekinesis (blues) and mind control (oranges). In a panic, the US government (led by President Bradley Whitford) puts all their children into camps, but when orange Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) manages to escape, she’ll find that there is still hope for a life outside.
Based on the novel by Alexandra Bracken, the script by Chad Hodge does hit almost of all of the beats you’d expect, but it does so with a sincerity and a sweetness that is genuinely disarming. A huge part of this is down to the excellent casting, with Stenberg (The Hunger Games, the upcoming The Hate U Give) delivering a very strong performance that promises many more excellent turns to come. She also shares excellent chemistry with Harris Dickinson (friendly telekinetic Liam), Skylan Brooks (super-smart wisecracking Chubs) and Miya Cech (the silent electricity controller Zu), as the four young actors form a mini-family that’s easy to root for.
And it’s impossible to overstate the impact that Nelson’s visual choices have on the film. Ditching the greys and dark greens that became synonymous with YA movies, she instead focuses on warmth and the beauty of the landscape the four outcasts are travelling through. When we’re with them on their journey, The Darkest Minds starts to soar.
So, it’s a shame that the final act stumbles as it attempts to deliver a satisfactory conclusion and set up the next chapter (which is still unconfirmed and perhaps a little unlikely following a disappointing US debut). However, it’s visually and emotionally warm and it’s refreshing to see a story that’s both timely (children caged by their government and abandoned by their elders) and ultimately optimistic.