The Giver (2014)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Fantasy Drama, Psychological Sci-Fi  |   Release Date - Aug 15, 2014 (USA)  |   Run Time - 100 min.  |   Countries - Canada, United States, South Africa  |   MPAA Rating - PG13
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Review by Tracie Cooper

Although the movie version of The Giver has drawn comparisons to recent young-adult dystopian stories like The Hunger Games and Divergent, the truth is that those series owe a debt to the novel by Lois Lowry it's based on. Published in 1993 and optioned in 1995 by Jeff Bridges (who had intended for his father, Lloyd Bridges, to play the title role), The Giver's moral dilemma is not that of a society oppressed by a violent dictatorship. Rather, it stems from the issues that arise when the protagonist discovers that the peaceful, plentiful world where he has spent his entire life content, if not happy, thrives by stripping its citizens of their individuality and passion.

Perhaps pressured to match the flashy, high-tech totalitarian environments found in the current crop of YA favorites, director Phillip Noyce thrusts viewers into a monochromatic world that's equal parts Panem and Pleasantville. Thanks to a combination of drugs and genetic manipulation, there are few overt differences among the citizens of "the community," who are also unable to perceive color and are virtually sexless (a council of Elders are responsible for matching adult couples, and children are conceived via artificial insemination). Theirs is a hollow, black-and-white society where everyone smiles, but no one feels anything.

To Noyce's credit, this setup is easily understood. However, the world building that made The Giver such a unique novel is put aside in favor of slick set pieces and hastily delivered, heavy-handed exposition by Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), the film's protagonist, and his friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush). The three of them are looking forward to a major life event: a graduation ceremony in which the community's 18-year-olds are assigned careers based on surveillance and data gathering by the Chief Elder, represented in holographic form by Meryl Streep.

Streep, even as a hologram, is a commanding presence, exuding warmth throughout the ceremony -- with the exception of the icy glare she throws toward Asher for a slight lapse in decorum. Once all of Jonas' peers have been assigned positions within the community, the Chief Elder explains that he has been selected for the elite role of Receiver of Memory. His training will consist of absorbing generations of memories and experiences from the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges, who later redubs himself the Giver). Jonas, once equipped with this wisdom, will become a vital advisor to the Elders.

The film's pace picks up significantly once Jonas begins meeting with the Giver. Bridges, now old enough to play the role he had once imagined for his father, is comforting as the abrupt yet compassionate mentor. Thwaites, however, makes little impression one way or the other. This isn't entirely bad, for what is Jonas if not a blank slate? However, whereas the introspective 12-year-old Jonas of Lowry's book considers the benefits of living in a society where war has been eradicated because the seeds of unrest were simply never planted -- wondering if this way of life is truly better than a more complicated existence with its unpredictable joys and sorrows -- the film's impulsive 18-year-old appears ready to risk it all long before he learns the true fate of the citizens deemed fit for "release to elsewhere." Though Katie Holmes and Alexander SkarsgÄrd are appropriately creepy as his well-meaning but emotionally hollow parents, Jonas' family life (particularly his relationship with a baby who has been put temporarily under his father's care) is pushed aside for a rushed and wholly unnecessary romance with Fiona.

While entertaining, it's a shame that The Giver, after so many years in production and with a story about the importance of individuality, would fall in line with the conventions of young-adult drama rather than allow its soul to speak for itself.