The Giver movie is a surprisingly generic addition to the young adult film genre - especially for a story that champions individuality and self-expression.
In The Giver, humankind has curbed individuality in order to prevent the pain and mistakes of the past. Far in the future, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) along with his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) flourish within the borders of a mountain top community that has never known jealousy, insecurity, war, or choice. To ensure stability, jobs are assigned based on inherent skill and talents (rather than personal passions) at the time an adolescent turns sixteen - and everyone, even children, are administered daily injections that help maintain sameness throughout the community.
When the friends are assigned their respective roles, Jonas discovers he has been chosen to bear the society's most challenging responsibility as the next "Receiver." In order to help the ruling counsel avoid mistakes from the past, Jonas is implanted with memories (both good and bad) from humanity's past - transmitted through his predecessor (Jeff Bridges), who calls himself "The Giver." However, as Jonas awakens to the true reality of his society, and is confronted by what it truly means to be human, he's faced with a dangerous choice: embrace communal solidarity once and for all, or free his friends and family from blissful ignorance.
For The Giver, Director Phillip Noyce (Salt) attempts to bring a new level of complexity and filmic vision to the young adult movie genre - with Pleasantville-like visual flair and an award-winning children's novel source material (authored by Lois Lowry). Yet, for every beautiful juxtaposition of mono and polychromatic imagery - or compelling glimpse into the human condition - there's a predictable story beat or eye-rolling young adult romance moment that undermines the overall experience. Noyce establishes both an engaging world and aesthetic, but fails to populate either with fully realized characters or philosophical ideas. As a result, The Giver is a harmless film that emphasizes the power of choice amidst dystopian ideals, but ultimately falls short in providing a satisfying balance between rumination and believable character drama.
Book purists will notice a number of significant changes between the source material and Noyce's film adaptation (most notably Jonas' age), but in general, the spirit of the novel is mostly intact - albeit deprived of intimate access to The Receiver's internal thoughts and memory experiences. Regrettably, without a third-person voice, Noyce was forced to compensate, relying on clumsy expository dialogue to convey the book's most subtle ideas. Nearly every plot mechanic and character interaction is an excuse for an on-the-nose message about human nature - often bordering on melodrama instead of thought-provoking perception. Still, The Giver is rooted in contemplative ideas that manage to shine through - even when the directing and/or acting falters a bit.
To his credit, Brenton Thwaites (Oculus) does his best in the lead role and provides a charming protagonist for audiences to follow. Like most young adult film heroes, he's an outline instead of a developed person, and with only 94 minutes to chart his journey, The Giver simply does not make time to unpack Jonas beyond what is needed to advance the plot. Every shared memory session between the Giver and the Receiver becomes a touchstone in the story - each one resulting in an outside consequence (except when passing weeks are collected in a tutoring montage). More than anyone else, Jonas is the victim of the forced drama and heavy-handed dialogue - tasked with answering countless questions that explain machinations of his film world, but provide little insight into what Jonas actually feels (especially given that the majority of his reactions are actually to events other people, long dead, had witnessed or experienced).
Similarly, Bridges is adequate in his role as the Giver - riffing on the surly but lovable old-man routine that won him accolades in True Grit. The veteran actor hits all his marks, but even in the film's most emotional moments, it's clear that Bridges is mostly revisiting familiar territory, comfortable to present the Giver as another shade of Rooster Cogburn and R.I.P.D.'s Roy Pulsipher - instead of crafting a fresh wise elder for audiences to relish.
The supporting cast is a mix of stiff but passable young adult performances (Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan) as well as capable but underutilized talents (Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes). Most characters are simply present to help frame the dystopian society and offer confused or frustrated stares once Jonas begins to defy the community's strict rule set. Meryl Streep is charged with the unenviable part (and extremely familiar story trope) of Chief Elder - the final authority for sameness and stability. While Noyce flirts with presenting the character as a layered despot, willing to break a few rules in order to uphold society, the filmmaker never develops the Chief Elder's comprisable mindset - locking Streep into a pretty standard storyline of malevolence in service of order.
Despite beautiful cinematography and sharp world-building, The Giver fails to differentiate its coming-of-age tale from the crowd of YA movies set in future dystopias. Book fans will find plenty to nitpick in The Giver adaptation; yet, Noyce's film provides an interesting and at times evocative movie-going experience - even when painting the finer points of its novel source material in pretty broad strokes. Unlike most young adult films, the filmmaker injects noticeable vision and artistry into his brew - unfortunately any successes simply are not enough to make the film an across the board recommendation. The Giver movie is a surprisingly generic addition to the young adult film genre - especially for a story that champions individuality and self-expression.
The Giver runs 94 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence. Now playing in theaters.
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