If you do not have a teenage niece or a weirdly YA-obsessed adult friend, then it is possible you have no idea what Divergent is actually about. Running? Tattoos? It’s definitely set in a dystopian society — you can tell that from the TV commercials — but it’s not really clear what kind. The exposition flies by in the movies, in a way that could leave the uninitiated confused. So for those of you who like to be prepared, or who have no interest in seeing the movie but would like to participate in high-school lunch table conversations, here is a primer. Warning: SAT vocab is involved. (As for whether you should see the film from a qualitative point of view, read David Edelstein's review.)
Where: Future Chicago. The city has been walled off, and no one knows what lurks outside.
When: After "the war." Do we know which war? We do not. But it apparently destroyed much of what exists beyond the wall.
What: A society that is divided up into five groups, or "factions," as they are called. The factions are organized by virtues that they live by — honesty, bravery, selflessness, intelligence, and friendship — though they use super-ridiculous synonyms: The Dauntless, who value bravery, work as the city's defenders, and run around jumping off trains and ziplining off skyscrapers. The Abnegation (selflessness) wear gray, eat boring food, and don't own mirrors. (They're also in charge of the government.) The Erudite (intelligence) serve as teachers and doctors. Candor (honesty) deal with the legal system. And then the friendly Amity, whom everyone makes fun of, deal with the farms.
Every year, the 16-year-olds of the society are sorted into a faction. Each teen takes a fake-science-y test to determine which faction suits him or her best, but the test isn’t binding; ultimately, your faction is a personal choice. Most children choose to stay with the faction they were raised in, but transfers are not unheard of.
Why: Because this is a dystopian society and that's how it is, mostly. The official line is that the moral codes help correct human nature, and together the five virtues will create a functioning society — one that would never start another war. [Foreshadowing!]
Who: Our heroine is Beatrice Prior, and she is a 16-year-old member of Abnegation. Surprise: She does not fit in, mostly because she has a mouth on her and likes running around, like every other YA heroine in recent memory. When Beatrice takes her faction test, she does not place into any of the existing factions, but instead gets a mysterious and apparently dangerous result. It is called … yeah, Divergent, and it means that Beatrice shows aptitude for several different factions all at once. Beatrice is told to keep this result a secret. She joins Dauntless, because she wants to express herself, and tries to hide the fact that she is Divergent. Drama (and a love connection) ensues.
So that's your basic setup. It is about a 16-year-old girl grappling with what kind of person to be, and also about discovering your own personal value, and then about how organized society is evil and starts wars all the damn time. There's a lot of punching. More punching than the Hunger Games, actually. Now you know!