Dear Shailene Woodley’s Hair,
In the pantheon of film tropes, a female character cutting off all of her hair is lazy shorthand for internal transformation. Either she’s survived a traumatic event and chopping off her locks symbolizes her emotional turmoil, or she’s making a bold statement by eschewing the trappings of mainstream femininity. In the case of Insurgent’s protagonist, Triss, it’s a bit of both. After her radical coming of age, the Divergent series seemed poised to emulate the level of dystopian cultural gravitas that the Hunger Games series brings to its films. But you and Insurgent made me realize what snazzy new haircuts and middling middle films have in common: both are expensive and fussy and, though initially exciting, fall flat if they aren’t shaped properly.
Jumping into the middle of a second film in a series feels a little like overhearing gossip about strangers at a busy hair salon: it’s momentarily entertaining, yet ultimately inconsequential. Following a coup, Insurgent finds Triss and her boyfriend, Four, on the run from Jeanine, head of the Erudite faction. Intent on defeating Jeanine and restoring order to their world, Triss, Four, and the remaining Dauntless faction must join forces with the Factionless, led by Four’s estranged mother, Evelyn. In order to maintain complete control over the factions (Erudite, Candor, Abnegation, Amity, and Dauntless), Jeanine needs Triss, the most powerful Divergent—and also the only person who can open a box containing a message from the elders.
You were quite the hot topic on the way to the theatre. My 16 year-old niece was rather irked that you were not, as the YA novel describes, cut just below the ear. Instead you were shorn into a short pixie-cut. This kind of detail matters to the teen girl readership (which is the same demographic that melted over the teens-with-cancer weeper The Fault In Our Stars, the film adaptation also starring Woodley and the reason for your cut in the first place). Having not read the books, I was irked by Insurgent’s inability to advance the characters beyond the people we left at the end of Divergent by even a hair’s breadth.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is detail-heavy. Especially with regards to the special effects, which are elaborate and mesmerizing. Triss must undergo trance-like simulations that require her to rescue her mother from a burning house hurtling through dystopian Chicago. In another, she must fight a version of herself. These sequences and others render objects and people into flying fragments; pixels disintegrate in slow motion and particles dissolving before Triss’ eyes. The film is fascinating to watch—but only when it’s not exhausting. The obvious plot twists and relentless exposition left me yearning for characters I could root for.
The film industry has done much hair-pulling recently over the dearth of roles for women, especially those of a certain age. In this regard, Insurgent is a cut above. Though their characters don’t exactly jump off the page, Octavia Spencer, Ashley Judd, Naomi Watts, and Kate Winslet succeed in elevating this installment beyond its weary premise. No doubt any one of them would have killed for a lead in this series had it been conceived twenty years ago, happily shearing off their locks for the chance to portray a strong female protagonist in a lucrative franchise. Like the formidable actresses that surround her, Woodley definitely has the chops to survive in this industry. She, along with the rest of the cast, are the only thing that keeps this overblown ‘do from delving into the territory of SyFy Channel original programming.
I’ve had my share of drastic long-to-short haircuts (out of boredom; I’m not a movie character). One thing is certain, once the stylist has made that first cut: you have no choice but to commit. Insurgent is the halfway mark of a series, and, despite the dazzle, it failed to deliver the excitement or intensity that the first film (however naïve) promised. Let’s hope that both you and the series find a way to transition out of that awkward “in-between” phase.
Just remember, it could have been worse. Triss could have gotten a perm.
Go with the flow,