The Giver’s boilerplate summary is one that’s increasingly familiar in the young adult genre: A dystopian world in which a teenager rebels against the authorities in an effort to free civilization.
The truth is that Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning YA novel, published 21 years ago — 18 of which was spent bringing the story to the big screen — is late to the party it helped spawn.
The differences, however, are in The Giver’s details. After devastating conflict, society rebuilt itself as the antidote to all of humanity's ills. There are no feelings, emotions, and social differences in people that lead to conflict. A mandatory shot a day ensures that everyone’s kept in this subdued state of sameness, in which there literally is no color — they see only in black and white.
And that’s where the film comes alive.
Directed by Phillip Noyce.
Screenplay by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, based on the book by Lois Lowry.
A Weinstein Co release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/ violence.
Running time: 94 minutes.
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes.
While the first half-hour of The Giver is dulled by familiarity, the next hour, at least, sparkles with something new: Jeff Bridges as The Giver.
The Dude gives a wonderful performance as a bearded wise man full of regrets and, more important, the memories and feelings of humanity’s past that this future civilization has shunned in order to survive.
He’s isolated in this world with the job to keep these collections inside of him and to pass them along to someone younger with the special ability to receive them as has been done presumably for generations, including a failure with the previous receiver named Rosemary (Taylor Swift, in a brief role that doesn’t carry much weight).
After Rosemary’s failure, the one selected for the process is Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), an intelligent, inquisitive, and kind 18-year-old unsure of how he fits into this world — unlike his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), who know their roles in this highly managed society and are eager to join it.
It’s a relief for Jonas, then, to learn his place in this utopia is to be set apart from it. But his troubles only begin when he learns how much more there is to know. His instinct is to share this knowledge with others, especially Fiona and his younger sister Lilly (Emma Tremblay). But his parents (Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes) will have none of it, rebuking his attempts to deviate from the norm.
Meanwhile, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) is watching Jonas, NSA-like, through a citywide network of cameras, and growing increasingly concerned that he might attempt to topple this society.
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The trio of young actors fit nicely with their well-defined roles, which have little more than obvious intentions attached to them, robotically moving from one plot point to the next.
It’s the same for Skarsgård and Holmes as Jonas’ emotionless parents, who have no means of grasping the concept of loving him or each other. Parenthood, like everything else in this simple world, is an assignment.
The difference between Streep and most actresses in the role of the Chief Elder is not that she plays the role as straight and not as a villain, but that she convinces us she believes it. Streep’s Chief Elder must place the well-being of social order ahead of everything and everyone, even if it means trouble for Jonas.
And that’s where The Giver begins to crumble, as Jonas acts to save society from its blissful ignorance. It’s not so much the logic of his decision to leave the world — including the choice to bring with him a newborn with the similar gift of receiving — but the illogic of the film’s suspense that’s unnecessarily attached to those decisions.
The Giver hurtles the pair through a series of dangerous crises that would give Rambo fits. Perhaps this all makes sense in Lowry’s novel — the first in a four-book series — but director Phillip Noyce’s clumsy execution of the struggles, like Jonas carrying an infant across a desert with no apparent water and little food, is preposterous even by Hollywood standards.
Noyce is known for directing action fare like Patriot Games and Salt. In The Giver, however, he is less interested in the action than he is the artsy, including the Pleasantville-like use of color as Jonas, imbued with the Giver’s knowledge, eschews the daily injections to see beyond the black and white. It’s a clever cheat device to relay to audiences how far Jonas is along the path of understanding the world as it really is and was.
As Jonas pulls back the curtain further, he sees in bolder and brighter colors, and comes to embrace newfound emotions of love, pain, hope, and despair. But with The Giver, it feels like there’s so much more to this journey than what we’re allowed to see.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.