Film Review: The Giver

Another bleakly perfect future-world, another teen hero who challenges the status quo. Is this long-gestating project too late to the party?

The world of young-adult fiction is full of sensitive, misunderstood, gifted teenage rebels who break the rules of their future dystopian societies, paving the way for a new, better day—several books later. The Giver’s Jonas (Brenton Thwaite) is one of the genre’s true pioneers, if not its prototype. But because it sometimes takes forever (in this case, some 20 years) to get a movie green-lit, off the ground and into multiplexes, this adaptation of Lois Lowry’s award-winning best-seller has the misfortune of feeling a little too familiar to have the same impact as, say, The Hunger Games, or even Divergent. That is the bad news, box-office-wise.

The good news is that The Giver is an assuredly directed, stylistically adventurous parable that does a surprisingly moving job of celebrating the many emotional colors of the human experience—as messy as they can often be. And as it unfolds, carried by a strong cast led by Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, it increasingly takes a narrative direction that makes you feel that you are seeing something new and different. Is that enough? Let’s just say that they had this reviewer at Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges.

But watching this film at its outset, one is struck by how many YA authors are in general agreement about what the future will be like. The Giver is especially reminiscent of Divergent (but really, of course, it’s the other way around), with its harmonious, ultra-homogeneous society set apart from everywhere else. (The super-city we see here sits atop a plateau so high that it’s often in the clouds.) This is a place where the ruling elders are never wrong, where newborns of anonymous mothers are assigned to families, where retiring senior citizens are sent to “Elsewhere,” and where teens like Fiona (Odeya Rush), Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Jonas come of age when they are assigned the vocations based off their most dominant attribute. As a proto YA protagonist, Jonas can’t be reduced to a single trait. Hence, he is chosen to be groomed as the society’s next Receiver of Memories.

As apprentice Receiver, Jonas spends his days at the cliffside cottage of the society’s resident sage, known only as the Giver (Bridges). By means of touch-telepathy, oral history and good old-fashioned book-learning, the Giver imparts to Jonas all the human history that has been withheld from the rest of the population, in the untold generations since whatever apocalypse created this world.

Along the way, Jonas is also informed that his daily shot of preventative meds is suppressing a whole spectrum of fully felt emotions and that “Elsewhere” is actually nowhere you want to be. He also learns about such alien concepts as love and sex and music and joy and war and slaughter, in a mind-blowing crash course of imagery that pretty much touches all the bases of the human condition, but can’t help but feel a bit rushed and superficial. The film could have used at least another 10 to 15 minutes on the whole human-condition thing. Still, what is there adequately gets the point across, and it unfurls with an alluring visual evolution from the stark black-and-white of Jonas’ unenlightened pre-Receiver state to the full, sometimes saturated color of his Giver-inspired epiphanies.

With what he now knows about the distant past and the manipulated present, Jonas quickly leaps into action. Again, this happens a little too quickly. A little more back-and-forth uncertainty would have made his transition more believable. But once Jonas is in action mode, the film is suspenseful and thrilling. And yet Jonas is never just an “action hero”; he is a true hero, enduring physical hardship and making real sacrifice, literally on a journey, over many harsh landscapes, in search of truth and salvation, for himself, for his world. And no shots are fired. Hardly a punch is thrown. This is actually refreshing.

In by far the meatiest role of his career, Thwaites comports himself with conviction, as the impulsive and increasingly righteous Jonas. But of course it is Bridges as the gruff, haunted Giver and Streep as the benignly imperious Chief Elder who give this film its star power. Neither is showing us anything we haven’t seen from them before. But both are giving their roles exactly what was needed: Authority. Gravity. Presence.

In a perfect world, this film would have come out years ago, much closer to the book’s publication. (The first version of the screenplay was in fact written 17 years ago.) At that point, it might have been considered every bit as seminal as its source material. But at the point we are now, The Giver still looks pretty good. And in the years to come, when order of release is no longer a factor, it will be no doubt be recognized as one of the best of its kind.

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