The Giver, adapted from Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning novel, opens in black and white, with best friends Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), Fiona (Odeya Rush), and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) living in a dystopian community free of strife. Every day is sunny and every lawn looks perfectly manicured.
Residents receive an injection every morning to remove all feelings and the ability to see colors, and people are assigned families and jobs. There’s no free will, but that’s because—as the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) says—when humans are given choices they choose wrong every time.
The exception is the Receiver of Memory (Jeff Bridges), the only person who remembers what the world used to be like—full of music and dancing and sunsets and colors. His job is to advise the council of elders in their decision making. He’s getting up in years, though, so Jonas is chosen as the next Receiver and Bridges’s character becomes the Giver.
The training goes fine until a baby’s life is endangered and Jonas realizes he wants the capacity to feel love and joy and all the other emotions. He rebels, and the elders must stop him from destroying the community and the way of life they’ve painstakingly built.
Not having read the book, I’m going to venture it’s a difficult piece to adapt for the screen. The concept of people being protected from the heartbreaks and messiness of life is thought provoking and maybe even attractive, considering how chaotic and distressing the world is right now (the book was released in 1993). But the idea probably works better in literary form, because film is a visual medium that requires more than actors with robotic mannerisms.
For most of the movie, Thwaites, Rush, and Monaghan give flat line readings and exhibit few facial expressions. I understand this is how their characters are supposed to be, but it’s difficult to stay invested in such bland people. After Jonas is exposed to the Giver’s memories (and colors start leaking into the movie), Thwaites’s performance doesn’t get much more interesting.
Bridges and Streep fare better, but their work here won’t garner them any award nominations. Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard as (Jonas’s) Mother and Father are utilitarian. Taylor Swift shows up for a tiny part; her presence feels like stunt casting.
Director Phillip Noyce’s talents also seem to have been underused, since The Giver is neither fast paced nor thrilling like some of his past movies such as Salt and Patriot Games. Giver is not bad, but—perhaps fittingly—it doesn’t elicit much of an emotional response, one way or the other.
Nerd verdict: Unrewarding Giver
Photo: The Weinstein Company