A mysterious disease wipes out ninety-eight percent of children across the United States. When the survivors develop strange superpowers the government imprisons them in an internment camp. One such child is sixteen year old Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) whose mind-altering abilities inadvertently wiped all trace of her existence from her parents' memories. Kindly doctor Cate (Mandy Moore) springs Ruby out of the internment camp in the hope of taking her to a resistance group called the League. However, reluctant to trust any adult, Ruby runs away and joins a group of similarly super-powered kids - handsome Liam (Harris Dickinson), brainy Chubs (Skylan Brooks) and young Zu (Miya Cech). Dogged by bounty hunters and government troops the kids search for a rumoured but elusive haven for their kind.
Films based on young adult fantasy novels may have peaked several years ago and yielded nothing but flops since. Yet that has not stopped studios vainly pursuing the next Twilight (2008) or The Hunger Games (2012). Based on Alexandra Bracken's dystopian sci-fi adventure of the same name and co-produced by Shawn Levy, hot off another tale of paranormally gifted kids with Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things, The Darkest Minds was another box-office casualty joining the corpses of The 5th Wave (2016), Ender's Game (2013), Beautiful Creatures (2013), The Host (2013) and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) littering the hall of failed franchises. Given the source novels were all bestsellers and the films themselves redeemed by interesting ideas and solid acting from rising stars it is possible a growing fan-base may some day re-evaluate and elevate them to cult status. The way earlier generations rescued key genre films from the Eighties and Nineties that failed to connect with the mainstream.
Working with a conceit somewhat in the vein of X-Men or perhaps more aptly The New Mutants, The Darkest Minds certainly hits all the familiar beats in the young adult fantasy sub-genre. Hunger Games veteran Amandla Stenberg essays another sullen yet steely and determined teen heroine in the Katniss Everdeen mould while the plot, as adapted by screenwriter Chad Hodge, reassures young viewers that "everyone has a place in the world" whilst drawing a parallel between growing up and learning the importance of sacrifice and using one's talents for a greater good. Yet amidst the clichés Darkest Minds pulls off a handful of potent moments that, whether by accident or design, reflect the current political climate. Images of armed soldiers herding children like cattle or corralling them behind bars are uncomfortably similar to the real life treatment of child immigrants by the Trump administration. In addition scenes of children and teenagers organizing themselves into resistance groups seem to echo 'woke' millennial activist groups like the Parkland survivors or climate change protesters.
However, despite the potentially grim subject matter the treatment is more lightweight compared to the confrontational Hunger Games films or even The Maze Runner (2014). Making her live-action directorial debut, animator Jennifer Yuh Nelson takes time out from the sci-fi conspiracy angle for teen romance, jokes about Harry Potter, cutesy moments scored by a bubblegum pop soundtrack and even a shopping montage. Nelson handles the action competently if unspectacularly, compared to the dynamism she brought to Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), and the film lacks a strong visual identity. The cast features seasoned performers like Bradley Whitford (as a seemingly duplicitous President), Mandy Moore and Gwendoline Christie (as a psychotic bounty hunter) but sidelines the grownups to focus on the youngsters who are engaging even if some characters lack definition. Stendberg, a star on the rise, does especially well with several tragic emotional beats. Though the film comes dangerously close to extolling a kids: good, grownups: bad message a late hour plot twist goes some way toward establishing a more balanced view. While events defining the world of the film might be hectic the pace is sedate. The plot falls into a deep lull in its second act before rescued by a few tragic turns leading to a poignant finale referencing, of all things, Superman II (1980).