The Darkest Minds begins in an elementary school cafeteria rather than the middle of a revolution. Ruby Daly (Lidya Jewett) witnesses one of her classmates die for the first time, the result of widespread contagion that will soon be known as Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration (IAAN).
A month later, still-alive Ruby celebrates her 10th birthday and receives a Gudetama keychain as a gift from her parents. Not only does the keychain serve as a symbol of Ruby’s shifting attachments, but including an appearance by Sanrio’s depressed egg-yolk mascot, an internet favorite due to an adorably apathetic facial expression, signals early on that The Darkest Minds is, unlike most young-adult entertainment of the last decade, speaking to young adults.
Unlike other popular YA dystopian films, The Darkest Minds, the live-action debut of Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2), takes place in a not-so-distant future. As the children who don’t die of IAAN start to display odd abilities and powers, they’re herded into camps by a fearful government and categorized according to their power class. Greens are incredibly intelligent; Blues have telekinetic abilities; Golds can manipulate electricity; Reds spew fire; Oranges can probe into others’ minds. Greens, Blues, and Golds are controllable enough to contain — Reds and Oranges are killed on sight.
Hours after celebrating her birthday, Ruby accidentally erases herself from her parents’ memory and is carted off to a camp. Although she’s immediately classified as an Orange, she survives by psychically influencing a doctor into thinking she’s Green. A time jump re-introduces us to 16-year-old Ruby (Amandla Stenberg), who is rescued by Cate (Mandy Moore), an adult working for the Children’s League, an organization that supposedly works to expose the truth about the camps to the general public. However, Ruby later flees Cate and her companion to join another group of children — Liam (Harris Dickinson) the leadership-prone Blue, Chubs (Skylan Brooks) the skeptical and snarky Green, and Zu (Miya Cech) the adorable, girly Gold — in pursuit of a place where children can live freely.
The Darkest Minds is cut from the same cloth as other wildly successful dystopias like The Hunger Games or Divergent — teenagers rebelling against an oppressive government isn’t exactly new ground. However, while those blockbusters take place in futures so far removed from current reality that they feel fantastically impossible, The Darkest Minds is set in a future that’s five or six years away at most — as a result, it implicates current rather than future governments. The film is very deliberately focused on characters rather than the unique structure of the dystopia itself, a sentiment that Yuh Nelson echoed in a recent interview with Variety:
I’m not necessarily a huge fan of YA movies … There have been a lot of great YA movies, of course, but I wanted something a little different. So when I first spoke to them about this movie, one of the first things we talked about was how I didn’t want to make a YA movie, I just wanted to make a movie with a great emotional core. And I didn’t want it to be this dark dystopian film, I wanted to make something joyous, uplifting and positive, where you’re energized and driven to action at the end.
Although the film’s ending is relatively open-ended, Yuh Nelson’s message of mobilization is an urgent message, specifically for a young audience, which it goes to great lengths to understand and serve. In addition to Gudetama, the anthemic sounds of pop music — the kind you would hear could hear at a party or an EDM study playlist— clicks in the ears of the right audience. There’s a conversation where Ruby and Liam compare themselves to Harry Potter characters (and display a wry awareness of Ruby’s protagonist role). The language and humor used by other kids — in particular, Chubs’ dry quips like “We were talking about Betty, not your Orange ass” and the deadpan, “Wow you caught me staring at a lake. I’ve officially become my grandma.” — are the kind of things you might hear if you stumbled into a coffee shop full of exasperated students. As a person only a few years older than the characters, it felt that much more resonant.
The Darkest Minds’ evergreen theme of youthful resistance harkens back to Alexandra Bracken’s source material, and aligns with today’s activist culture. The original novel was published in 2012, when Bracken was 25. As stated in a Tumblr post, she “decided to write a story that examined what it’s like to come of age in a time of great emotional and political manipulation following a national tragedy (in her case, 9/11) — and how hard it can be for young people to overcome feelings of self-hatred and powerlessness that get reinforced by the world around them in an attempt to subdue their power to make societal change.”
Today’s youth are growing up at time when government credibility has been thrown into question and school shootings are the new normal. While the film adaptation is heavy-handed at times, it’s core themes — resistance, found family and fear of the “other” — are particularly relevant given how close to home it hits to home. Youth organizing is not a new concept, but it is to every blossoming generation. The Darkest Minds speaks to the experience of seeing your world as a dystopia, and to the young activists who are now aligning with organizations like Black Lives Matter and the March For Our Lives. Even a key tenant of the film — children being separated from their families and contained by the government — is now a very public reality.
A genuine dedication to young people and the film’s cultural relevance define The Darkest Minds, even as the film hits similar note to its predecessors. The open-ended-but-optimistic conclusion sets it apart from those contemporaries: Yuh Nelson makes us believe in these kids, their relationships and their power because they’re like us. Whether or not it gets the go-ahead for the sequel (there are two books remaining in the original source trilogy), The Darkest Minds leaves us feeling uplifted rather than downtrodden. Gudetama aside, the film’s deliberate anchoring in youth is what makes it worth it.
The Darkest Minds is now in theaters.