It’s the future and after some sort of presumed apocalyptic event, society has been rebuilt with all emotion, all differences, all fear and joy removed. The village is neat and symmetric and the family has been replaced by a unit, mother, father, two children of different ages, each in their assigned domicile. Reflecting this is the black and white cinematography: this particular future really is colorless, not just in terms of skin color, but in terms of the entire range of human experience.
Based on a book of the same name, The Giver stars Brenton Thwaites as Jonas, a boy who has had the ability to see and experience more than just the grey of his world. He’s turning sixteen and while his friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) are assigned specific jobs in their Ceremony of Growth, Jonas is left for last and assigned the unusual role of Receiver of Memory. If you’re sensing an echo of the setup of the recent teen sci-fi thriller Divergent, you’d be right. Jonas has all four qualities that the Council seeks in a Receiver; intelligence, courage, integrity, and wisdom. Tris, in Divergent, learns she doesn’t fit in either, but unlike Jonas, it’s up to her to escape the bonds of the society and find her own role.
The Giver of Memories is played by Jeff Bridges, in a role quite reminiscent of his role as “cultural village elder” Flynn in Tron: Legacy. It’s his task to act as a human storehouse of all the memories of humanity, all the emotions, experiences that have been banned from the community. Leading the Council of Elders is The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) who masks her own sense of the loss of their collective humanity in a passion for order, logic and what’s best for everyone.
While it comes across somewhat as a young adult movie, a typical sci-fi coming of age film, I found it quite moving, and quite appreciated that there were elements that challenged the status quo. Jonas becomes quite attached to a Gabriel, a tiny baby that his father-unit (Alexander Skarsgard) brings home to try and help grow so it won’t be culled for being underweight (in the film they refer to this as being “released to elsewhere”).
While his childhood pals Asher and Fiona grow into their positions as drone pilot and nurturer, respectively, Jonas works day after day with The Giver, absorbing memories both sweet, of weddings, dances, children laughing, sunsets, and the feeling of love, and of memories terrible, of wars, killing animals, starvation and loss. Just as the journey from the selfishness of adolescence to the responsibility to others of maturation is a shock, so is it jolting for Jonas, who finds the world around him more and more stifling as he begins to truly wake up to what it is to be human.
The plot’s predictable in these sort of films so it’s no surprise that he has to rescue baby Gabe when he finds out that the little guy has failed a weigh-in, and that the newly awakened emotions Fiona has experienced after Jonas shares with her that he loves her cause her to waver and help him rather than march lockstep to the rules and laws of their civilization. And then, come on, how do these films always end? Yeah, this one does too.
I liked the book The Giver (written by Lois Lowry) and found the film provocative, if a bit shallow. Director Phillip Noyce is no newbie to the director’s chair (his filmography includes The Saint, Salt, and Patriot Games) but a lot of the effects come off as more cliché than profound, including the use of color vs. black & white throughout.
The performances are good, but at times The Giver also seems more of a stage production on film than a cinematic experience. The book’s deep. The film isn’t. But it would still be a terrific film to watch with your teen and then spark a discussion about individual versus the group, what makes us human, balancing good and bad, etc. Otherwise wait for the DVD release…