The Darkest Minds follows a familiar story. It's been explored in Marvel's X-Men, Stephen King's Firestarter, The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, even M83's music video for “Midnight City," and the list goes on.
Speculative fiction about humanity's fear of superhuman children is a common trope because emotionally the experience is pretty universal. Emotionally, it's real. The teenage years are all about feeling imprisoned, becoming aware of segregation by class, and experiencing harassment from intimidated adults. Teenagers are powerful. After all, they're just a skip and a jump away from adulthood. So laser light melodramas like The Darkest Minds touch on what that experience feels like. Another trope of The Darkest Minds: It would take the complete upending of society to find someone decent to date. Yeah, that also feels real.
The Darkest Minds is initially a little hard to watch. It opens on military personnel pushing frightened children into cages, and that happens to be all too real for us right now. There's a long wait before we're introduced to the central character, Ruby (Amandla Stenberg), so, based on the trailer and the first five minutes, The Darkest Minds didn't seem like it would turn into much. I expected some cheesy special effects, an Imagine Dragons song, a bland central actress, and an equally bland hunk to be her obligatory end-of-the-world love interest.
However, once Stenberg took over from the actress playing her younger self, she surprised me with her ability to root the story and offer believability to the film's action. You might remember Stenberg from The Hunger Games where she was Katniss Everdeen's friend in the arena, Rue. Stenberg delivered a performance that I bet you’re still giving her a three-fingered salute over, as you remember her in that bed of flowers. RUE.
As Ruby, Stenberg plays a superpowered teen, imprisoned in a government facility. She gets a chance to escape and teams up with a handful of other misfit superpowered teens: a nerd, a traumatized youth, and a hunky older guy. And they are all played by surprisingly good actors. The lattice of their friendship is what carries the film.
The hunky boy romance partner Liam (Harris Dickinson) also turned out to be a surprisingly competent actor and determined to make The Darkest Minds' clunky script come across as casual, if not adolescently awkward. It's embarrassing to be charmed by the mannerisms of a male lead in a doomed teenage superpower romance movie, but Liam's written with a bunch of no-brainer, likable traits: He listens to the people on his team, his uses his strength to help people weaker than himself, he's a loyal friend, he doesn't try to force his feelings on Ruby. What the hell do women want? I think they want this good guy.
Further rounding out the cast are the delightful Mandy "Motherfucking" Moore (AIRHORN AIRHORN) and Gwendolyn Christine (AIRHORN that plays Game of Thrones theme) playing equally shifty adults who probably shouldn't be trusted. Shout-outs should also be extended to the film's director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson. This is her first live-action film (she directed Kung Fu Panda 2 and Kung Fu Panda 3). Though The Darkest Minds has a fairly conventional pacing, it works to support the story. UGH, KISSING IN A SUN-DAPPLED FIELD OKAY (peeks through fingers).
The Darkest Minds asks its audience to accept some truly unbelievable things. Super-powered children with glowing eyes? I'm here for it! The US electing a president with a beard? Hah! That would never happen! Teens having an unsupervised Free People couture rave in the woods and leaving room for the holy spirit? NOW THAT'S speculative fiction! But you gotta get that PG-13 rating, I suppose.
The Darkest Minds will flash into theaters and disappear in a couple weekends. There's nothing classically good about it. This isn't one for the history books. But I think it will mean the world to some superpower-lovin' 13-year-olds and some superpower-lovin' 13-year-old at hearts.