“The Giver” has an unsavory reek of box-office calculation about it, from the overworked “teens-must-save-a-world-ruined-by-adults” plot to the casting of pop star Taylor Swift in a small and irrelevant role. It benefits from a talented cast and handsome cinematography, yet its initial concept never gets fleshed out, and the world it creates remains unfinished. Lois Lowry’s young adult novel has been around for 21 years, but the movie made from it could have been thrown together after two or three months.
Jonas, an 11-year-old hero in Lowry’s novel, is a high school graduate played by heartthrob Brenton Thwaites in the film. Jonas’ society has recovered from The Ruin, a devastating event, by creating Sameness, an anodyne existence in which pain, fear, envy and other emotions have been removed by medication or cultural pressure to conform.
In The Ceremony, where The Elders choose jobs for graduates, Jason becomes the society’s lone Receiver of Memories. (Common nouns in these kinds of movies always take capital letters. It’s like reading German.)
The Receiver gets trained by The Giver (Jeff Bridges, muttering through clenched teeth as if he’d had dental surgery the day shooting began). The Giver passes on feelings and memories that existed before The Sameness: love, music, war, violent death, religious worship, etc. Jonas tries to share some of these with his friend Fiona (Odeya Rush) but inevitably becomes an outlaw when The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep in a Rapunzel wig) realizes he could start The Rebellion. Improbably, she selects his best friend (Cameron Monaghan) to execute him.
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Michael Mitnick (who has never written a feature screenplay before) and Robert B. Weide (who has written one, the 1996 “Mother Night”) don’t answer obvious questions.
What is the undefined Boundary of Memories, and why will everyone in The Community suddenly be flooded with feelings if Jonas can cross it? Why does The Community have a Giver at all? He’s supposedly there to help The Elders deal with circumstances to which they can’t respond, because they have no memories of The Time Before. But we never see him solve any problems – indeed, there don’t seem to be any problems – and keeping him around is like hanging on to polio vaccine long after everyone alive has been inoculated against polio.
Director Phillip Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery have a clever visual strategy to depict Jonas’ internal changes: As he acquires memories, the world in which he lives remains black-and-white for everyone else but takes on color for him. (“Pleasantville” did this in 1998; the plots are similar, too, though Lowry’s book came out five years earlier.)
Yet even this device doesn’t quite work: Jonas can identify colors he’s never seen, and we’re told The Elders abolished colors because they might cause division. That doesn’t make sense; black and brown-skinned people can be seen in crowd scenes, and Community members obviously know they’re different. On the other hand, everyone who rules The Community is white, so perhaps totalitarianism and white skin are supposed to go together.
P.S. Katie Holmes, who’s only 10 years older than Thwaites, plays his mother. I wonder if Lowry was thinking about Scientology when she wrote her Newbery-winning novel, and whether Holmes’ casting was a kick in the teeth to the group of rigid conformists that includes her ex-husband.