The Darkest Minds
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
A mysterious virus has wiped out 90% of the Earth’s children. The remaining 10% all seem to have some kind of supernatural power. Adults, terrified of their own offspring, put them into camps so they can try to find a cure for their abnormalities. This is the setup for the sci-fi drama The Darkest Minds (based on the first in a trilogy of young adult novels by Alexandra Bracken), which follows a teenager named Ruby as she tries to find safety. It is a surprisingly enjoyable film with a compelling premise and an engaging lead. The last quarter or so of its 98 minute running time (minus the end credits) is a bit of a letdown, but it hooked me pretty well up until then.
In the camps, the children are separated by the color their eyes turn when they use their powers. Greens, yellows and blues are considered less dangerous and they are experimented on. Oranges and reds are killed on sight. Ruby is an orange passing herself off as a green. When she is discovered, she is able to escape. Eventually she meets up with a group of kids looking for a mythical oasis where they can be free. These are the silent Zu, the brainy Chubs and their brave leader Liam. Each of these characters fill precisely the role you would expect them to. Still, the actors are given just enough to work with that they occasionally transcend clichés to become people you can get invested in.
Oddly, I think what intrigued me the most about director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s approach to the material was her pace. Though there are a few big action set-pieces, the focus is on the relationship between Ruby and her new friends. It was refreshing to see a plot driven movie where not every scene was concerned with moving the story forward. The characters here are just as important. That makes some of the action more effective. Not all of the action is staged particularly well, but I cared about the outcome which is half of the battle right there. Because she takes the time to develop the personalities of the kids (less so with the adults), what happens to them actually feels significant.
By far the best asset The Darkest Minds has is its lead, nineteen year-old Amandla Stenberg. This is the first thing I have seen her in and she commands the screen. She is a believable hero for an epic journey like this. She is very easy to root for. I sympathized with her plight even though her arc is a little repetitive. Ruby is not the most original character (especially not for the protagonist of a young adult novel adaptation) and not all of her dialogue is great, but Stenberg pulls it off. She is the film’s center. Without her it may not have worked at all. With her? I would not groan if I heard they had greenlit an adaptation of the book’s sequel.
Having heaped a fair amount of praise, let me say not everything here is good. The plot is predictable, the dialogue is too on the nose quite often and, as mentioned above, the final section of the story is overstuffed and unsatisfying. There is a lot going on in The Darkest Minds and not all of it is successful. What is successful is the creation of the world and most of its major characters. The rest is carried by star-in-the-making Amandla Stenberg. This is not a great movie in its genre, but it made me curious to see more. That is pretty much exactly what it set out to do.
3¼ out of 5
Amandla Stenberg as Ruby
Harris Dickinson as Liam
Skylan Brooks as Chubs
Miya Cech as Zu
Patrick Gibson as Clancy Gray
Wade Williams as The Captain
Bradley Whitford as President Gray
Mandy Moore as Cate
Gwendoline Christie as Lady Jane
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Written by Chad Hodge