Silver Screen: The Giver ***1/2
The teenagers of today are going to be awfully upset if the world doesn’t end tomorrow. Otherwise, what have they spent their entire childhoods preparing for, subsisting on a diet of film and fiction almost exclusively about the breakdown of society?
The trend makes sense. If you were raised in the shadow of September 11 and spent your entire childhood watching the American economy crumble and the income gap widen, you might feel the sting of missing the party, too.
Lois Lowry wrote The Giver way back in 1993, when America felt more defined by possibility than limitation. Our shiny new saxophone-playing president promised a new dawn of progressive thinking: the fastest internet connections America Online’s dialup could provide, gays in the military so long as they pretended to be straight, and a housing market and tech-stock bubble that would for sure never, ever burst.
In retrospect, though, Lowry’s novel seems like the template for the modern dystopian young-adult novel. It’s an accessible allegory that borrows from 1984 and Brave New World and refuses to pander to its intended audience.
Kids raised on the slew of popular trilogies and their blockbuster adaptations will find plenty of this familiar. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives in a small, rigidly controlled society that has risen from the ashes of some long-ago war. In this case, it’s been so long since the near-apocalypse that the citizens no longer remember the dark past. The village’s Elders, led by the Chief (Meryl Streep), have seen to that: Through medication, manipulation of language, selective education, and a dogmatic system of specialization they have created an environment so free of hostility or danger that the citizenry can’t even conceive of an alternative.
Jonas is chosen to be the Receiver, the one member of the collective who is allowed access to the memories and cultural history of the old world to advise the council of Elders. The former Receiver, now known as the Giver (Jeff Bridges), will pass down this knowledge under the supervision of the Elders. As Jonas learns about war, pain, death, and conflict— but also risk, love, and possibility— he begins to suspect that the anodyne system of his youth is no replacement for the troubled world of yesteryear.
Director Phillip Noyce conveys Jonas’s awakening through a gradual shift in the film’s aesthetic. The opening sequences are in black and white, but once Jonas stops taking his medication he begins to see in color. Gradually the gray tones give way to washed-out hues and occasional bursts of vividness. In Jonas’s received memories, the camera suddenly jolts to life and blurs the screen with motion. It’s an effective device that succeeds in part because even the austere early scenes are handsomely rendered. Noyce is a great match for the material, as some of his best films— Rabbit-proof Fence, The Quiet American, and Catch a Fire— are all about the limits of control, and his style has evolved accordingly.
The movie might be a little too controlled for today’s teen moviegoers. Screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Wiede make a few concessions to commercial appeal: They give Jonas a girlfriend (Odeya Rush), amp up the climax with a dash of sci-fi action, and significantly downplay the potential bleakness of the novel’s ambiguous ending. Mostly, though, they’re faithful to the source material, which lacks the power fantasy elements of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the forthcoming Maze Runner. The Giver is slower and talkier, its big ideas the crux of the story rather than an excuse for action and adventure. As such, the movie’s commentary is more pointed and wrenching. The scene in which Jonas discovers the truth about the nursery where his father (Alexander Skarsgård) works is far more disturbing than any of The Hunger Games’ bloody deaths precisely because of its banality.
The young stars are capable, although unsurprisingly the movie only really comes alive when Bridges is onscreen. Who better to deliver weary wisdom than America’s most trusted scruffy uncle, whose mush-mouthed, post-Dude gruffness has transformed him into a kind of aging hippie oracle? When he spars with a severe, calculating Streep, we’re reminded that the flashiness of youth is no match for decades of hard-won wisdom.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.