Director On Dystopian Thriller 'The Darkest Minds' The Darkest Minds is a film adaptation of dystopian young adult novels with some similarities to current events. NPR's Scott Simon talks to director Jennifer Yuh Nelson about it.

Director On Dystopian Thriller 'The Darkest Minds'

Director On Dystopian Thriller 'The Darkest Minds'

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The Darkest Minds is a film adaptation of dystopian young adult novels with some similarities to current events. NPR's Scott Simon talks to director Jennifer Yuh Nelson about it.


I just can't think of a nice way to say this. The film "The Darkest Minds" begins with a horrifying premise.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) For their safety and yours, please turn over your children.

SKYLAN BROOKS: (As Chubs) I'm smart enough to know you're hiding something, and you're smart enough to be hiding it.

AMANDLA STENBERG: (As Ruby) I just didn't want you to be afraid of me. The more that I try to control it, the more damage that I do.

SIMON: Ninety-eight percent of the children in the United States died from some ghastly pandemic. The surviving 2 percent develop supernatural powers that frighten adults, so they're rounded into camps. But the caged teens are young, earnest and attractive. "The Darkest Minds" is also a summertime date movie. So pass the Dippin Dots. "The Darkest Minds" is taken from Alexandra Bracken's trilogy, stars Amandla Stenberg. And the director is Jennifer Yuh Nelson, her first live-action feature. She joins us from NPR West. Ms. Nelson, thanks so much for being with us.

JENNIFER YUH NELSON: Happy to be here.

SIMON: Some of the most unnerving images in this film are shots, for example, of soccer fields now overgrown with, I guess, weeds and empty, rusting school buses. How did you decide to portray this world in which there are so few children?

NELSON: I think it's a trauma to have something that huge happen to society, but it really is about how people deal with it. This isn't a post-apocalyptic story where the world just goes away. This is where society has gone through a great shock. So things that are very familiar, like school buses left in a lot to rust away, is something that we all could identify with and imagine happening today.

SIMON: And, of course, this film was completed before we saw the images of children in camps who'd been separated from families at the U.S.-Mexico border. But I got to tell you, it's hard to see children in cages in this movie and not think of contemporary events.

NELSON: It is quite shocking. When Alex wrote this book, it was years ago. And when I first read the script, it was about a year and a half ago, a couple of years ago. And it was science fiction, you know, then. It was such a crazy, outlandish idea. We thought, wow, this could never happen. To see something like that on the news is really shocking.

SIMON: What makes, do you think, dark worlds like this so popular with young adults?

NELSON: I think in the experience of growing up and realizing who you are, what your place in the world is can be quite scary. And I think that to young adults, the world is just as scary as any sort of crazy, you know, dystopian world. And their situation is just as dire as what they face every day in their minds. But seeing people overcome it, to see people sort of find their voice and step forward and actually affect their own destiny helps them imagine what they could do in their own lives.

SIMON: Amandla Stenberg plays Ruby Daly, who's 16. And several young characters say in this movie one way or another - the only people we can trust is ourselves. Is the message of this film that you can't trust anyone over 17?


NELSON: I think maybe some kids feel that way. No, I actually think it's a little bit more universal and that you can't look to others to solve your problems. You have to figure out how you can step forward and affect your own life. I think that sense of empowerment is actually really positive, specifically for the young generation because they've been bystanders in their own lives for a while. And to realize that, really, the adults aren't going to fix their problems, maybe the things that are the normal forms of order and control in their lives is not going to solve their problems. They have to become architects of their own lives, rather than just bystanders.

SIMON: So a question that bothered me the entire film - if teens have superpowers, how can adults round them up and put them into camps?

NELSON: Adults have weapons. Adults have the entire government at their beck and call. And also, these teens may not have complete control over what they can do. I think a single individual can't stand up against an entire system like that. And so they are basically kids. They're people that are, you know, lost from their families, don't know who they are, don't know what they're capable of doing, facing an organized system that's arrayed against them.

SIMON: I've read that you have been making movies in your head since you were a child.

NELSON: I have been. In fact, I remember when I was 4 - 3 1/2 - 4 years old coming over here on the plane with my family.

SIMON: You were born in South Korea.

NELSON: I was. Me and my sisters would entertain ourselves by telling each other stories in the plane seats.

SIMON: Oh, oh, that's wonderful.

NELSON: It's a long flight.

SIMON: (Laughter) That would have been like a triple or quadruple feature - right? - from Seoul.

NELSON: Yeah, it was quite entertaining (laughter).

SIMON: I have to share some, you know, my joke about Dippin Dots notwithstanding, I have to share with you some discomfort I had at moments in the film. It's a hard film for a parent to watch. I would have found it more logical that parents would have died protecting their children than that parents would step back and say, yeah, take them, they're no good.

NELSON: Yeah. I think that society can shift if they are afraid. If you have basically a group of people that may have been powerless before that could literally overthrow the government, shift the world order, take over everything, I think there could be a societal upheaval. And that is the big what if. In Ruby's case, her parents didn't give her up. This is a spoiler, but it's in the beginning of the movie. They didn't give her up. They never would have given her up. In fact, many of the characters in the book and in the film, the main characters, were not given up - they were taken.

SIMON: Was this film in the can when we began to see these stories from the border? Did they make any changes?

NELSON: Absolutely, it was in the can, and it was locked. So this was very, very recently. I mean, we were looking at the news footage well after the movie was finished. So there's literally nothing we could have adjusted that's part of the story.

SIMON: And probably wouldn't want to now.

NELSON: No, I think actually it sort of taps into sort of a group consciousness right now. So even if we didn't intend to, those images of possibility has been floating through people's minds.

SIMON: Jennifer Nelson. Her new film, her first live action, "The Darkest Minds." Thanks so much for being with us.

NELSON: Thanks for having me.

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