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The new Hunger Games movie is a love letter to difficult women

Jennifer Lawrence in Mockingjay Part 1
Jennifer Lawrence in Mockingjay Part 1
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Mockingjay doesn't feel like a Hunger Games movie. That's both the best and worst thing about it.

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the essential tomes of Suzanne Collins's frenetic young adult series, were spun tight, centered on the Games — a glittery spectacle where teens, each special in their own way and some more special than others, fight to the death. There are no Games in the third book.

Instead, Collins trades teenage celebrity death-dealing for swipes at propaganda, warfare, and revolution, in a Wagnerian tale primarily set in the claustrophobic, subterranean, realm of District 13.

The toughest challenge for Mockingjay Part-1, then, is overcoming the occasional aimlessness of its source material (particularly that book's first half) and not making audiences long for the flashiness of the first two films.

Not helping matters is the film's studio, Lionsgate. Not satisfied with the boatloads of money the first two films have made, it sawed the book into two films, turning Mockingjay Part-1 into a cinematic amuse-bouche — cleansing your palate from the first two films and setting the mood for the final entry in the series, out next year. It would be so easy for this film to be a slapdash setup for something better to come.

Yet, with all these factors working in unison against this film, director Francis Lawrence still manages to create a tale filled with beguiling jolts of excitement, thanks in part his fiery star Jennifer Lawrence, and solid work from a bevy of Hollywood's heaviest hitters, including Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Difficult Women

Julianne Moore in Mockingjay Part-1 (Mockingjay)

At its heart, Mockingjay is a movie about rebellion. Districts, full of the poor and fed up with the scraps and punishment of The Capitol, rise up against it. The film examines the ebb and flow of war, public opinion, and the gory consequences of rising up. And it delves into those topics deeply — though occasionally in perhaps even too clinical a fashion.

But look for the spaces between those sweeping, teaching moments. That's where you'll find the film's most fascinating take on rebellion. At the heart of this uprising are two very different women. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has fire in her eyes and mud in her veins. Alma Coin, played by Julianne Moore amid a veil of silver hair, is cold, deliberate, and dispassionate.

And despite being on the same side, the two don't like each other very much. In fact, there are more characters in the movie who dislike these two, than those that actually do. Francis Lawrence makes their prickly demeanors unmissable, but he also makes it clear that one of the things that this dystopian world understands (that American society might still be missing) is that a woman doesn't need to be likable to be respected.

This trend is slowly taking hold in television — where women are just as morally tilted, complicated, and faulty as men. But this movie goes a step further than even those shows, with a canny commentary on celebrity, suggesting that the badass qualities that we love about women like Katniss (or Olivia Pope or Beyoncé) is only what they allow us to see.

Jennifer Lawrence has no problem playing America's golden girl in real life, but here, she is given particularly brutal, petty stuff to work with. While the people around Katniss brace for civil war, Katniss spends most of her time howling at television screens and sulking about a boy. She also sings. And gives crackling speeches in front of burning jet fuel. It could be a recipe for camp disaster. But in Jennifer Lawrence's hands, Katniss never strays into silliness — a testament to the actress's understanding of Katniss, her dead-on instincts, and her sheer talent as an actress.

Moore's Coin is equally impressive, though not as flashy. Moore spends much of the movie knitting her brows, stifling her voice into a feathery whisper, and meticulously doling out tiny quivers of emotion via her lips. Moore creates the perfect complement to Katniss, while laying the foundation for Coin's role in the next film. It's hard not to watch her, knowing where this is going, and get excited.

War is such a drag

Elizabeth Banks in Mockingjay Part-1

Mockingjay wants to make it clear that war hurts everyone and hurts them in different ways. The people in the Districts are maimed and murdered, but the Capitol's police officers become casualties too. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) quietly worries, and even those on the same side— as Katniss, Coin, and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are— are rarely on the same page as each other.

Hoffman underplays Heavensbee, the burly architect of this uprising. Like Moore's Coin, Heavensbee's motive — and he must have one — is unclear, but he's easily more trustable thanks to Hoffman.

Panem's conflict has touched Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), too. Trinket is plunged into the guts of District 13 without her wigs, bangles, lipstick, or barrettes — her battle armor. A reluctant inhabitant of 13's subterranean bunker, Effie cinches up her grey jumpsuit and twists scraps of cloth into a head wrap in a desperate attempt to conjure up couture.

Banks, in turn, flits her eyes, sassing and shading Katniss and the rest of the rebellion's inner sanctum. It's a treat to watch her unfurl her wings in Mockingjay and reveal the bright and salty comedy she's capable of. It's also a stark departure from the book, where Effie all but disappears after Catching Fire. But because of Banks, it's a welcome one.

Despite Banks's bolt of life and Hoffman's moments of brisk tenderness, Mockingjay is still a gloomy, bleak film. But that's what it wants to be. Next year's film, when everything comes to its seismic finish, promises to be more rousing. But by leaning in to the uncertainty of rebellion, Mockingjay Part-1 offers a necessary, painful lesson in the destruction of war.

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