Insurgent Dir. Robert Schwentke

[Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate; 2015]

Styles: young adult, dystopian, selfies, entitlement
Others: Divergent, The Hunger Games, Maze Runner

Early on in Insurgent, the second film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s best-selling young adult series, Tris (Shailene Woodley) cuts her long, straight hair into a pixie cut. It’s at once (on her part and the filmmakers’) a vacuous aesthetic decision and a symbolically important one, like many of the simultaneities that characterize growing up in an age where self-expression and self-determination are hopelessly inextricable. It also neatly describes Insurgent’s flaws and strengths: Roth’s parable about the dangers of school tracking is so weak, it collapses under the film’s visual pastiche (Hunger Games; ruin porn; iPhone sci-fi; Pinterest lifestyle feeds including steampunk, boho, streetwear). Absent a coherent, authorial grand narrative about humanity and stuff, Insurgent’s politics — its core — is that thing we too often think of as peripheral to meaning: the superficial.

As the film begins, Tris and her friends are hiding out with the Amity folks, one of the five factions into which the citizens of the film’s post-apocalyptic Chicago setting are divided. Amity’s cheerful, peace-loving communalism rubs Tris the wrong way, and for those familiar with Woodley, this is a clever bit casting (one of the things this film is best at): IRL, the actress, who makes her own toothpaste out of clay and whose most beloved physical possessions include a Vitamix (an excellent blender that I highly recommend), would likely be much more at home in dressed in Amity’s natural fabrics while peeling organic sweet potatoes under their rough-hewn geodesic dome. But Tris, she thinks, is just not that type of person. She’s a member of the Dauntless — the brave security force faction/parkour performance group who dress kinda healthgoth but also who like early-aughts tattoos and facial piercings, IKR so random — and as such, dislikes everything that geodesic domes and their aficionados stand for.

Just as he uses Amity’s geodesic dome and earth-tone natural fibers as a stand in for any substantive illumination of its members’ beliefs, director Robert Schwentke uses Tris’s haircut as a substitute for having to actually show the teenage Tris cross into the self-determination of adulthood. Besides filmic subtlety, it’s really his only option: her parents, who belonged to the morally superior faction Abnegation, died in the last film, Divergent, in which she also lost her virginity to fellow Dauntless member Four (Theo James), so what other blunt-force tropes for growing up are left besides a makeover? And just like Tris breaks the hair mold with her fierce new ‘do, she also breaks down the class barriers of the dystopian world she inhabits: instead of possessing the (scientifically-determined) skillset for one faction, Tris has all of them. The fact that she’s so good at everything is central to the film’s plot and message: the government, led by Jeanine (Kate Winslet), can’t handle how radical it is that people like Tris don’t fit the 5 personality types that structure society, and sets out to eliminate these “Divergents.” Anyone who’s felt discriminated against because you’re a total nerd but you also identify with that one Buzzfeed list that only extroverts will understand will get Tris’s struggle.

Despite how dumb — if not despicable — its ideas are, Insurgent’s more enjoyable than you might think. Schwentke (who will also direct the final two films in the series) is a more graceful director than his predecessor, Neil Burger; the action sequences here are not separate, emotionless displays of spectacle, but rather extensions of the film’s dramatic threads. And besides Theo James — admittedly so handsome it doesn’t really matter — the actors turn in better performances than seems probable with a filmsy script in front of a greenscreen. Woodley once again demonstrates that despite being constantly typecast as a teen on the verge of adulthood or something — the previous five films she starred in all featured her character losing her virginity, including, in a bizarre bit of casting, to three actors in this film: Miles Teller (Spectacular Now), Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars), and, of course, Theo James — she’s one of the more skilled and original young actors working in Hollywood today. The director, wisely, favors close-ups of her face, whose strategically unpolished expressiveness lends a kind of authenticity to an otherwise contrived film. Miles Teller also breathes dimension into an otherwise bland character (although at times it feels like he’s puffing up for his upcoming role in Fantastic Four).

Within the monochromatic spectrum of recent dystopian YA films, the Divergent series may be painted in a more washed-out version of The Hunger Games’ filmic palette, but its splatter of nonsense is also unique, disrupting one of the primary through-lines of the genre so far. The Giver and the Hunger Games and Maze Runner series, despite their au courrantness, are all parables that aspire to some kind of timeless moral message about the world: about growing up, about class divisions, about authority, about how it’s never a good idea to have a film’s switch from black and white to color be filled with meaning. But Insurgent’s lessons are inward focused; its world is contoured to perpetuate and justify its teen protagonist’s narcissism, not to pull her out of it into the world. Tris is unique, Tris will cut her own hair uniquely. Tris will battle to reshape society so that it recognizes her uniqueness, and others’ recognition of her uniqueness will save humanity. In this context, the film’s lack of depth seems vital: in one of the pivotal scenes, Tris battles her own technology-created reflection in a lab as others look on. What’s a better representation of growing up — no matter one’s age — right now?

But back to Tris’ haircut. In The Hunger Games, protagonist Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) goes through makeovers galore; her fashion designer is one of the series’ major characters, and Katniss herself poses as a designer in her life after the Games. Yet Katniss, always being broadcast, is ambivalent toward dressing up; instead of self-expression, her wardrobe decisions are calculated, based on how society’s notions of the codes of femininity function in a highly mediated world. Her changes in hairstyles are signifiers, but their referent is always a sort of camouflage. Ultimately, it’s Insurgent’s lack of awareness about its superficiality, not Tris’, that’s such a timely failure.

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