Movie Review: The Giver
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Lois Lowry published “The Giver” in 1993, and not long after, Jeff Bridges was on a mission to make it into a movie.
After two decades of stops and starts, Bridges, acting as a producer, teamed up with director Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger,” “Rabbit Proof Fence”) to create the latest in a string of young adult dystopian films, following in the bloody footsteps of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.”
Lowry’s original book, though disturbing on societal and psychological levels, was an unlikely candidate for film production because it lacks much of the action of the later books-turned-blockbusters. With a light touch from screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide and input from the author herself, the film adaptation of “The Giver” has action to keep summer moviegoers satisfied but with less violence and even more heart than the YA films that have preceded it.
The movie follows Jonas, a young man on the cusp of adulthood who is living in a black-and-white world filled with as many rules as little box houses that all look just the same. It’s a “Pleasantville”-like manufactured community governed by rules — not to mention the genetic removal of the ability to see colors and the daily injections that suppress “the stirrings” of real human love — that were meant to wipe out the envy, hatred and desires that came with having differences.
Not seeing color, literally, was supposed to help eradicate racism and war, inequity and greed, but of course, it only white-washed the issues at hand.
The result is a seemingly perfect world without suffering or strife, where family units and vocations are assigned by a board led by Chief Elder (Meryl Streep).
Streep’s Chief Elder isn’t quite as evil as Donald Sutherland’s President Snow in “The Hunger Games,” and her reasoning for maintaining a society of sameness comes not from revenge for previous rebellions but from the genuine belief that when given the freedom of choice, people don’t make the best decisions for themselves.
Among the citizens who have no problem with this arrangement are Jonas’ assigned mother and father: A stone-cold Katie Holmes and caring but rule-abiding Alexander Skarsgard. Children have no relationship with their birth mothers, who bear them as a vocation in service to the community, and in this alternative world, there is no concept of “love” or “home” or even “kiss.”
We meet Jonas, portrayed with striking innocence by Brenton Thwaites (Prince Charming in this summer’s “Maleficent”), and his friends, Asher and Fiona, as they are preparing to receive their assignments. Fiona, having worked in the nursery as a teen, is chosen to be a nurturer, and Asher learns he’ll fly drones, but Jonas is given the most honored position in the community: The Receiver of Memories, who holds the collective memories, history and experience of every generation that came before in order to provide wisdom for the future of the current community.
Bridges, playing a role he’d envisioned for his father, is the current Receiver of Memories, and it is his job to pass that vast body of knowledge on to Jonas, a mental transmission that occurs when they grasp forearms.
At first, these memories are pleasant and full of sensory experiences that Jonas didn’t know existed. But he soon finds out that life before sameness wasn’t all snowflakes and sunsets.
Like “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age tale that has become a local blockbuster this summer, we see “The Giver’s” own nascent boy lying on grass, daydreaming into the sky about what his future might hold.
But unlike Mason, whom we see slowly evolve emotionally over the famously long production of “Boyhood,” Jonas is thrown into a head-on collision with the best and worst of what life has to offer. He feels all the feels, and so do we, joys and heartbreaks both great and small: Cliff-jumping and blowing out birthday candles. Welcoming babies and bidding bedside farewells.
And it is director of photography Ross Emery’s magnificent use of color and montage that elicits the most emotional response in the viewer. His slow introduction of color, a hint of red here, a tinge of green there, pulls the plot forward as much as the action.
It doesn’t take long to get used to the black-and-white world in which they live, which makes the piercing clementine sky of Jonas’ first sunset in color utterly breathtaking.
The film raises subtle questions about the implications of ignoring race, and though there’s no diversity within the primary cast, nearly every montage of memories from “back and back and back” features people from just about every corner of the planet doing what they do best: living without the kind of restrictions that come to burden Jonas.
At a refreshingly short 94 minutes, the film is just long enough for us to see what Jonas chooses to do with his newfound knowledge about the world that existed before the residents of this community were stripped of the choice to be who they wanted to be.
(Thankfully, the romantic plot line between Fiona and Jonas doesn’t take too much of it, and outright violence is limited to two flashback scenes, making the film appropriate for preteen audiences.)
Audiences, who live in a world with color and forget how beautiful it is to see, are reminded that there is no wisdom without pain, no winning without losing and that feelings, good or bad, are better than no feelings at all.