When Whitney Houston sang “I believe the children are our future / Teach them well and let them lead the way ...” in her 1985 cover of George Benson’s “The Greatest Love of All,” perhaps she knew there’d come a time when youth would truly chart a path forward. Much like the school-aged children and college students who helped undergird efforts of the civil rights movement, this generation’s millennials have assumed the major responsibility of speaking truth to power — from the “Arab Spring” to the Black Lives Matter movement to Parkland students marching for gun reform.
It’s a sentiment shared by the latest dystopian sci-fi YA adaptation, “The Darkest Minds,” in theaters Friday, according to star Amandla Stenberg.
“This is a story about young people speaking up, finding their voices, standing in their power and truth and utilizing their powers, literally,” she said. “It couldn’t be more relevant right now.”
Adapted from Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel series of the same name, the film follows a group of teens who, imprisoned by an adult world that fears the secret powers of anyone under 18, develop a resistance group to fight back. Stenberg, who had a breakout role in the genre as the tragic Rue in “The Hunger Games,” plays Ruby, whose powers are the most rare and powerful of the kids.
After she escapes, she meets others on the run from the government, played by Harris Dickinson (“Beach Rats”), Skylan Brooks (“The Get Down”) and Miya Cech (“American Horror Story”), as they avoid a bounty hunter in search of a rumored secret society of kids like them.
Early one spring morning last year, massive winds whipped through the “Darkest Minds” set in the outskirts of Atlanta, where there are more cows than houses. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and team set up cameras in a rolling, grassy field about half a mile from the base camp. While in transit, she mentioned she was attracted to the film because of Chad Hodge’s script and Bracken’s characters.
“I always look at the quality of characters and whether I bond with them and care about what happens,” the director of the “Kung Fu Panda” sequels said. “If you don’t care, no plot is going to save you.”
While it’s ultimately “a great road trip action movie,” it has an “interesting emotional base,” she said, likening it to “Stranger Things” in that although it stars teens, it is not just for young adults.
Back at base camp, Stenberg, wrapped in a blanket in her trailer, reflected on her “really strong female character,” an aspect that made her want to take on the role.
“She is independent and really focused on her dedication to family,” she said. “She is so powerful and doesn’t quite know her power yet. I think that's a quality that’s really interesting in a character, and it becomes more admirable as she steps into the shoes she has to fill.”
Having the book as source material was “a huge blessing” that helped her access parts of Ruby that couldn’t be incorporated into the adaptation, Stenberg said.
“There are tons of things actors workshop going into a scene, the character's mind-set, feelings they might be having. Having the book, a lot of that [foundation] is already there. In reading it, I’m able to see things about and details from Ruby’s life that may inform the person she is that you might not get from the script.”
But the bestseller also brings a rabid fan base that is both a blessing and a curse. Brooks called it “almost overwhelming.”
“Usually things are done and you create the fan base and grow with them,” he said, “but now it’s like living up to something.”
“There’s a fine line between disrespecting the book and its fans and taking some elements and incorporating them into something new,” he said. “We respect the book and author, but this is, in a way, a fresh take on it.”
As filming was set to begin, pre-teen Cech, the youngest member of the core ensemble, had just finished the book. She said that the night before she could barely sleep, excited about her first film role. But like the rest of her ensemble, she was ready for the high jinks that’d arise over the course of filming.
Over a year later, Cech said she “didn’t know what to expect.”
“But we got along immediately and had great chemistry,” the 11-year-old said. “We had a lot of fun on and off the set and our director was so great to work with. She has a very calming personality and is super patient. I learned so much from everyone.”
For Stenberg, in hindsight, she would’ve never predicted that “The Darkest Minds” could be not only an enticing sci-fi thriller but a super poignant and timely picture. But at 19 years old, she knows the responsibility on the shoulders and power of her generation.
“We have so many societal conditions that have shaped our perceptions of ourselves and make us scared to walk in our truths,” she said. “We’ve got to go through the process of unlearning that internalized self-hatred or fear or internalized racism and phobias, whatever it may be. That’s the most powerful thing audiences can take away from this.”
Brooks agreed, noting the similarities between the film and recent headlines, both of which involve kids being stripped from their parents by governmental forces.
“This should be a reality check to the state of being which we all find ourselves in,” he said. “Everybody has a power and some believe their different power divides them. But no matter what color, no matter what race, diversity doesn’t make us different. It should bring us together to learn about everyone.
“Power to the people and power to the kids, because the kids will change the world.”