Movie review: The Giver

in Cinema by

Science-fiction film based on popular young adult novel is superficial but engrossing

A little knowledge can go a long way, but once we’ve bitten the apple, there is no turning back. Although never explicitly mentioned, the story of Adam and Eve is central to the events of The Giver, a new film by Phillip Noyce based on the popular young adult novel by Lois Lowry. The film eschews explanations of its past in favor of focusing on the struggle of its main character to find the truth of the present, and while that leaves a number of questions for the uninitiated viewer, the film is at times a riveting and thoroughly moving, albeit transparently manipulated, experience.

Set in a black-and-white (but mostly gray) world somewhere on top of a flat mountain top, the world, known simply as “The Community,” is one of order, where people live in peace and tranquility with only a few basic rules, such as the imperative to use precise wording and never to lie, and subordination to the Elders. Everyone is born in a fertility clinic — only the strongest make it out the door — and is placed with a family determined by the authorities. When children reach the age of 18, they are assigned the jobs they will do for the rest of their lives. If there is any resistance, or when they reach old age and can no longer work, they are banished to Elsewhere, somewhere beyond the clouds.

Rating: ***½
Directed by Phillip Noyce
With Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Odeya Rush, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift

Whether your first thought upon reading this description or seeing the film is The Truman Show, or The Village or Pleasantville, such comparisons are all valid in their own way. All of the characters are being deceived here for some greater goal of peace and security, but once someone starts digging to get at the truth, there is no stopping them. In the case of The Giver, it is Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a handsome young man who has just turned 18 but is anxious about the coming ceremony (not at all unlike Divergent) where he will be told what the rest of his life will look like. He gets the unusual task of being the Receiver of Memory, and the next day he is off to a mysterious house on the edge of the Community, where he meets the otherwise anonymous Giver, with whom the history of mankind resides.

The Giver, played by Jeff Bridges, appears to be a grumpy old man, but of course we learn over time what has made him so annoyed with the otherwise seemingly idyllic Community life. The scenes between him and Jonas are short but powerful, with the overarching theme being that mankind is much better off being more informed than being less informed, and that resistance to power and authority can achieve a great deal, not least of which is the liberation of the spirit and the affirmation of courage. These messages are underscored by Marco Beltrami’s uplifting music on the soundtrack, and although some may see this as pure heavy-handedness, there is unmistakable food for thought.

However, the screenplay has its weak spots, as for example we see Jonas and the Giver walking around the Community, under constant surveillance, talking about the possibilities of human existence if people were only allowed to think and act outside the box; but when Jonas meets with the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), who is growing doubtful that the Giver can be trusted and asks Jonas what they have been up to, she seems to accept his description of their wordless meetings as truthful.

Based on the film alone, it is also difficult to understand why Jonas is allowed to roam freely and share his newfound knowledge with the people around him, easily upsetting the generations-old rules and customs of the Community and causing damage to the carefully choreographed implementation of the Elders’ vision. Perhaps such details are clarified in the book, but unfortunately the screenplay lacks such important clarifications. The Giver also relies on too many coincidences, especially toward the end, and one of the final scenes in particular, which mirrors a hallucination or a fantasy from earlier, simply doesn’t have any logical reason to be included here.

For all its faults, however, the film’s insistence that people should be allowed to make their own decisions — even if these turn out not to be in their best interest — is one that most viewers will strongly sympathize with, even though using young characters to make this point is not exactly the most creative approach. Bridges, who also served as producer, is simply exceptional as the sage who has to keep the joy and the sadness that complete freedom leads to bottled up inside, and much of our emotional investment depends on and follows from his very skilled balance between being a teacher and an accomplice.

The film’s use of apples clearly draws a parallel with the first story in the Bible, and the advent of color in the buttoned-up black-and-white world calls to mind Pleasantville, but despite the compelling scenes with Bridges, The Giver too often lacks the passion or the depth to make it a truly memorable film.

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