With basic-cable production values and an exceedingly generic story, “The Darkest Minds” is the latest teenage dystopian fantasy film based on a trilogy of young adult novels in which a girl learns she is Very Special and becomes a leader in the fight against oppression. It’s harmless — unless you’re upset by the idea of children dying en masse and survivors being put in concentration camps — but it’s at the low end of tolerable as far as vapid teen apocalypse adventures go.
There has been an epidemic that only affects people “under 17” (I don’t know how the disease knows how old you are), killing most of the world’s children and leaving the survivors with magic powers. The kids’ new skills are mostly along the lines of telekinesis and electricity manipulation, but some can do scarier things like control people’s minds or read their thoughts. At any rate, the adults are afraid of them, so the government puts most of the kids in “treatment camps” to have their powers reversed (an unproven idea), while the kids with especially frightening superpowers are, um, executed.
That should include our heroine, 16-year-old Ruby (Amandla Stenberg), whose brain scan reveals she’s an Orange (only Red is worse) among mostly Blues, Greens, and Golds. But mind control is one of Ruby’s Orange talents, so she’s able to stay alive in the camp for a long time before her true color is revealed and she becomes a target.
Ruby escapes from the camp with the help of a doctor named Cate (Mandy Moore), who’s part of an underground movement called the Children’s League. Before Ruby can join them, though, she meets some other fugitive teens who tell her the League only turns kids into soldiers. So she ditches Cate and joins these three — hunky, telekinetic Liam (Harris Dickinson), mute, electricity-controlling Zu (Miya Cech), and nerdy, I-don’t-know-what-his-power-is Chubs (Skylan Brooks) — as they drive around in a Nissan van in search of another underground movement, this one supposedly run by teens not adults, while evading the bounty hunters pursuing them and all other free-range children.
Besides Jedi mind-tricking you, Ruby can see your memories just by touching you, a power she can’t always control and that sometimes does damage. That’s why she’s reluctant to touch Liam even though they’re crushing on each other … well, reluctant until she isn’t anymore, and then she does and it’s fine. Yes, there’s a poppy soundtrack and another potential suitor for Ruby, to create a triangle. It’s all very “Hunger Games,” but more lightweight (the mass deaths and occasional murders of children aren’t dwelt upon, and mostly involve teens, who are played by 20-year-olds).
The first live-action film by “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “3” co-director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, “The Darkest Minds” has the bright lighting of a cartoon and the weak action of, uh, a mediocre cartoon. But I really like Amandla Stenberg (who played Rue in “The Hunger Games” and was in “Everything, Everything” last year), whose gentle strength and charisma are more than capable of carrying a franchise, should it come to that. This first installment is negligible but not actively bad, so there’s room to grow.
(Note: Bradley Whitford has approximately 45 seconds of screen time as the U.S. president.)
C+ (1 hr., 44 min.; )