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The Hate U Give redefines the teen superhero for 2018

Amandla Stenberg burns bright with her pitch-perfect Starr turn in the adaptation of Angie Thomas' bestselling novel.

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Amandla Stenberg gives an unmissable performance as Starr.

Erika Doss/20th Century Fox

What does coming of age mean in 2018 if not waking up to the problems of the world around us? Growing a social conscience? Finding a voice? Creating change?

They're all things that define the journey to adulthood of Starr Carter, the central character in the film The Hate U Give, which was adapted from the bestselling young adult novel of the same name by Angie Thomas. The film opened widely over the weekend in the US and on Monday in the UK. An Australian release is set for Jan. 1.

There's perhaps no one better suited to play the role of Starr than the young actor and activist Amandla Stenberg, who was best known until now as playing Rue in the Hunger Games movies. Stenberg is a passionate feminist and is also vocal about police brutality and the appropriation of black culture -- both issues at the heart of Starr's journey. Stenberg inhabits the lead role with a dynamism, sensitivity and slickness so hypnotic that you can barely bring yourself to blink, never mind cast your eyes away from the screen.

And shame on anyone who does look away, or even just plain overlooks this film, which examines with unflinching honesty the story of racial divides in present-day America and the ways they present themselves. The manifestations range from the insidious ("All lives matter," Starr's infuriatingly ignorant white friend preaches to her) to the extreme (an unarmed black kid is shot and killed by a white cop). It's a prescient tale told through Starr's own experiences, which closely echo what we see on the news and what many people of color live through every day.

When we meet Starr, she is torn between two worlds and two versions of herself. In her primarily black neighborhood of Garden Heights, which is beset with social problems and ruled over by a gang known as the King Lords, she is Starr version one: daughter of a former dealer turned pillar of and advocate for the community. Starr version two attends Williamson, a private school in a neighborhood full of gated mansions, where to fit in she must not use slang or do anything that might "give anyone a reason to call her ghetto" -- even though the white kids around her act that way.

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Starr is caught between two worlds.

Erika Doss/20th Century Fox

It's not that Starr belongs in one of these worlds and not in the other, or that one is in some sense superior. Instead, she must perform the emotional labor of making herself as acceptable and passive as possible in both. But as tensions heighten at home and school and her two worlds collide, she is forced to reconcile the two parts of herself to become just one Starr -- a Starr who must choose sides and who must fight, consequences be damned. We see her learn which battles to pick and what kind of friend she wants to be -- which, it turns out, are exactly the same thing.

Adapting a cherished children's or young adult book for the big screen is never an easy task. So often, something is lost or changed in a way that will give fans of the source material cause to grumble. Not so with The Hate U Give. The film offers up an almost identically complex, high-energy narrative, full of richly drawn secondary characters, as the book. It manages to tell the story so fluidly that it never gets itself in a tangle or feels exhausting to sit through.

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Starr's voiceover narration -- much of it lifted verbatim from the novel -- punctuates the action throughout and leads you deep inside her interior monologue, letting you inhabit her story to the fullest. It's why when she falters for a moment, megaphone in hand, you may find your hand clutching your chest or your breath catching in your throat, as you urge her to get her words out.

The most memorable young adult heroines with superpowers are usually found at least partly in the fantasy realm. This isn't true of Starr, but that doesn't make her any less iconic. Stenberg gives the kind of definitive performance that should secure her character's fate as a name we utter in the same breath as the likes of Matilda Wormwood, Hermione Granger and Lyra Belacqua of His Dark Materials.

The Hate U Give is a perfectly rendered story of our time, but Starr is a young female protagonist who should be treasured alongside those other fictional characters -- so beloved as to be almost mononymous -- for a long time to come. Just like them, we see her coming into her own by tapping into the power she has at her fingertips to change the world around her. But unlike them, her power is not the stuff of fantasy.

"You know, not everybody's got superpowers like you?" Starr's father, Maverick, tells her. She looks skeptical, but soon comes to realize he is right. Her superpower is her voice, and watching her learn to wield it is an intoxicating as any magic you might have seen on screen before, or might see again.

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