It wouldn’t be surprising if the current spate of Young Adult film adaptations is met with a degree of resentment by movie-lovers over 18 years old. When the films turn out to be entertaining and worthy of their respective source material (like the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” franchises), some adults surely wish they could watch with the carefree sensibilities of a fifteen year old. If the film turns out to be a drastically inferior adaptation and is met with a mixed critical reception (“Beautiful Creatures,” “The Mortal Instruments“) the resentment is directed at corporate Hollywood for proffering yet another tasteless, unoriginal, coughed up concept engineered to turn a profit. Of course, “Twilight” has spawned its own kind of resentment and grown to become the easiest target of them all. This Friday, the club of YA films admits a new member who will no doubt receive some critical punches.
Phillip Noyce directs “The Giver,” based on the best-selling book by Lois Lowry, concerning a young boy coming of age in a futuristic dystopian society. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is about to graduate from childhood into the role assigned to him by a council of Elders who govern his community. His two best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), inject themselves in the morning, a compulsory activity designed to remove excessive feelings, and words like love, envy, and fear are stricken from everyday vernacular. At the graduation ceremony, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) appears as a hologram to assign everyone their roles and thank all the children for their childhood. Asher becomes a drone pilot, Fiona is delegated the role of nurturer, and Jonas is signaled out to be the next Receiver of Memories. He will have to undergo intense training with the current Receiver, whose role now defaults to The Giver (Jeff Bridges,) as he takes in all of humanity’s memories in order to become something resembling a future guidance councilor for the government.
Once Jonas shifts from learning all the tiny joys life can bring (the sensation of snow falling on skin, the thrills of sledding) to reliving the happiest moments of various citizen’s lives, he becomes curious as to why day-to-day human existence changed. This is when the concept of Sameness is introduced; the governing ideology has forbidden anything that could represent difference, thus eliminating any possibilities of discrimination and envy. The Giver has been known to disappoint the Elders in the past, so the Chief Elder takes an interest, especially when Jonas tries to share all of these new feelings with his family, and develops a crush on Fiona. As he continues to go through the same routines with his law-abiding parents (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård,) Jonas quickly realizes that the Elders have it all wrong and that he’s the only one with the knowledge and courage to change things.
So the story is relentlessly rudimentary and it’s directed in an expected, uncomplicated, formulaic manner. With a brief 90 minutes running time, you end up feeling like “The Giver” isn’t concerned with making this dystopian community all that believable. Children’s toys are referred to as “comfort objects,” every bicycle wheel comes with an identical white filling to hide the individual spokes, and etiquette (centered around people apologizing and accepting apologies) snuffs out any potential conflict before it’s even implied, but you still feel like an extra half an hour could have been put to good use in explaining why this cowardly new world was engineered as such. It would’ve also been easier to get behind our hero Jonas if we understood what exactly made him special, as opposed to making him special just… because. Despite these missteps, ‘The Giver’ should still be pleasing to the specific target audience to whom it’s aimed.
The adult casting for the project feels right on the money; Bridges (who is also a producer here, this being his longtime passion project) and Streep are perfectly pitted against each other, representing two drastically opposing views on humanity. Neither is challenged here, but the presence of both elevates the picture to a comfortably sophisticated level. Skarsgård and Holmes are perfectly cast as vapid pawns of the system, and the three young actors do a decent job without impressing in the same way Jennifer Lawrence or Daniel Radcliffe did with their respective franchises. The art deco sets and cinematography, two crucial elements, come courtesy of Ed Verreux and Ross Emery, and they both make the colorless community and plasticized environment suitably lifeless.
Ultimately, it will be up to the readers and Lowry loyalists to determine whether Noyce and his team captured the spirit of the books. As far as YA films go, it’s not breaking any new ground but neither should it be criticized too harshly for its simplicity. It’s a film for teenagers: Before children are old enough to watch and understand dystopian films like “A Clockwork Orange” or “Equilibrium,” ‘The Giver’ should be a good way to start learning about the value of choices, the importance of memories, and the power of love. For all the adults among us who find that as cheesy as it sounds, we’ll always have “1984.” [B-]