I spent much of Neil Burger’s Divergent trying to figure out which faction I would join if I lived in that world. In this first film based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling trilogy, set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, we learn how the population is divided up into five different factions based on their personality traits: Abgenation, Candor, Amity, Erudite and Dauntless. These groupings are mandated to keep order and make sure everyone knows their place in the harsh post-war environment. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) was born into Abgenation, the selfless, ascetic, no-frills class (called “Stiffs” by some of the other groups) who avoid mirrors, dress and eat simply, and serve as the city’s social workers, offering compassion to the undesirable “factionless” who are spurned by the rest of society. Now that she’s 16, Beatrice is gearing up for the coming-of-age ceremony in which she gets to commit to her faction or choose to join a different one. But once that choice is made, there is no going back, and if she decides to leave Abgenation, it’s bye-bye to her loving mom and dad (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) and devoted brother (Ansel Elgort).

Though young people are ultimately free to choose any faction that they are drawn to, they go through a series of tests to help them decide what is best. The woman who administers Beatrice’s test (Maggie Q) is stunned by the girl’s results and warns her not to tell anyone what they are. Turns out Beatrice showed a strong suitability for several different factions, not just one, putting her in the rare position of being Divergent, a category that is considered extremely dangerous by the Powers That Be, especially Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), the leader of the Erudite faction, those super-smart eggheads who feel they’re the ones who should be running everything.

theo-james-divergentWhen Choosing Day comes, Beatrice shocks everyone by joining Dauntless, the high-adrenaline, tattooed and pierced protectors whose whooping, hollering and crazy-ass antics make them seem the polar opposite of the Amish-like Abgenation crowd. Beatrice changes her name to Tris and survives a series of Dauntless rituals that make Hell Week at the world’s rowdiest fraternity seem like High Tea at Downton Abbey. Did Tris make the right decision to hide her Divergent status and join this bunch of lunatics? She immediately finds herself in conflict with two Dauntless honchos: no-nonsense Eric (Jai Courtney) and the hunky and mysterious Four (Theo James) who clearly feels some kind of unexplained connection with Tris.

I don’t want to give too much away about this sometimes riveting, sometimes ridiculous, often incomprehensible plot. I’ll just say that the dystopian world that Neil Burger creates in this film definitely held my interest, especially as someone who had never read  Roth’s books (although I have to believe fans of her novels will also be quite pleased). As a native Chicagoan, it was fun to see this terrifying post-war view of my home town — kudos to production designer Andy Nicholson (Gravity) for the imaginative transformation of the Windy City. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t sign up for the death-defying zipline those madcap Dauntless kids love to take from the top of the John Hancock Building down to Navy Pier. The one thing I share with muscle-bound Four is a wrenching fear of heights.

The best thing about Divergent is the presence of Shailene Woodley in the part of Tris. The 22-year-old actress seems incapable of hitting a false note, even when we’re scratching our heads over some of the other characters’ motivations. In the past few years, Woodley has excelled in smaller movies such as Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now and, just as it was bringing Jennifer Lawrence into The Hunger Games films, it was a brilliant move to sign Woodley up for this franchise. To be honest, I found it  a little hard to avoid comparing Shailene’s Tris to Jennifer’s Katniss — the two women even look alike, and they’re both so talented that they help audience members overlook some of the problems in their respective films. Divergent has a lot more in common with Hunger Games than it does with the Twilight series, which is definitely good news, and while the sexual tension between Tris and Four is certainly an important element in the film, it never takes over the plot and I admired the producers’ restraint in not finding more reasons to get Theo James to take his shirt off.

katewinslet-woodleyThe rest of the Divergent cast is also fun to watch. While I wish Kate Winslet’s Jeanine had more screen time and back story, she is a delicious bleach-blonde villain, similar in tone and motivation to Jodie Foster’s golden-haired Delacourt in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (the sci-fi epic from last year that is already largely forgotten) but without Foster’s odd French accent (Winslet’s American accent cannot be beat). The rampaging Dauntless faction includes a bunch of interesting young actors including Miles Teller (Woodley’s Spectacular Now co-star) and Zoë Kravitz (whose dad Lenny Kravitz plays Katniss Everdeen’s stylist in The Hunger Games movies).

divergent-trainjumpingHave you noticed I’ve said very little about the last two factions: honest-to-a-fault Candor and peaceful self-sufficient Amity? That’s because those groups are given very short shrift in Divergent, a fact that I understand will be remedied in the remaining two films in the series, Insurgent (2015) and Allegiant (2016). Despite some issues I have with this film, I have to admit that I’m curious to see how the story plays out. For the record, at the beginning of Divergent, I thought it would be most fun to be part of the Dauntless faction. After seeing their insane antics and how easy it is for manipulative smarties like Winslet’s Matthews to turn them into mindless automatons, I’m now leaning toward Amity. I’d much rather be growing wheat in the former Lake Michigan than spend my days jumping off fast-moving trains onto decaying Chicago skyscrapers. Those kids are nuts!