Review: 'The Giver' Barely Stands Out Among Other Young Adult Fare
by Jeremy Kirk
August 14, 2014
Harry Potter was the spark that began the latest flame of movies based on young adult novels. The Twilight and The Hunger Games films have kept the sub-genre thriving at full potential, studios buying up properties left and right to get in on the mix. The latest of these, The Giver, is not the go-to novel for the big screen, at least not as much as wizards and vampires, and the results are good reasoning for that. The story comes preloaded with its message, which the film paints in broad strokes, and no amount of quality execution or solid performances (there's both) can get around the hokey and cliched subtext it provides.
The banality drops in right with its central premise. Jonas, a young man played by Brenton Thwaites, lives with his family in a community of the future, one where all violence, sickness, and even bad weather is being controlled. More so, these common agitators in any civilization are removed in favor of a simpler, blander existence. The people of this community have their places in life set upon them once they reach 16, an age which Jonas meets as the film begins. As a result Jonas is chosen to be the community's Receiver of Memory, all of the colony's history to be transferred to the young man via The Giver, played by Jeff Bridges, an elderly man who is the only keeper of the their full history and all their past's secrets. Needless to say, those secrets soon reveal what of humanity the community has truly given up and what it means for everyone who lives there.
It's no secret The Giver is a story of a dystopian society and the revolution that comes from one of its members learning the truth. It isn't exactly a groundbreaking setup, especially when recent adaptations of YA novels have covered similar ground with more subtlety and more impact. It's difficult not to see the direct fingerprints of The Hunger Games all over the very existence of this film. And, yet, screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide do the bare minimum in setting The Giver apart from the pack. Their screenplay hits all the required notes: blossoming love, clueless parents, and the personification of governmental control in the form of Meryl Streep playing the Chief Elder. On paper The Giver may seem like it could work, though that paper is filled with few original ideas and even less inventiveness in their development.
It's not a very full list of ideas with which the film comes at its audience. Fortunately, it's a good-looking one, aided at every turn in its execution by director Phillip Noyce. With a slate of hits and misses under his belt Noyce isn't necessarily an auteur, but his films always come with a certain quality in the way they look, The Giver being no exception there. The literal depiction of this black-and-white world and one character's slow broadening into a more colorful understanding is a nice touch, one that may very well be credited to Mitnick and Weide's screenplay. The director at hand, though, keeps it as light as he can faced with the darkness this foreign world offers. We understand the world in which Jonas exists far better than he does, but Noyce's delivery of each revelation The Giver provides the young man are met with precision and impact. Though the messages here are musty at best you wouldn't think as much as the film comes across each of them.
You can credit a lot of this to Thwaites, as well, the young actor giving a solid enough performance to subside any feelings of stereotype or overly simplified tropes The Giver relays at every turn. The same can be said for the adults in this world, Bridges and Streep bringing their effortless A-game to their respective characters. Bridges' Giver is wise beyond his years, quite literally, in fact, and the pain that comes from this and personal heartbreak the film eventually lays out seemingly splashed across the aged actors cracked expression. Streep, on the other hand, is cold and set to the path of established order, the embodiment of the society as a whole. Her part allows her less than Bridges', yet the force behind her character's motivations are fully understood and, shockingly, accepted in the way they are presented. The gifted actress has given her fair share of cold-blooded performances, but rarely has one gone so hand-in-hand with the environment that surrounds her character.
With decent secondary turns from Alexander Skarsgård playing Jonas' Father, Katie Holmes as the boy's Mother, and Odeya Rush as Jonas' adolescent love interest, there is much The Giver has to offer. The sum of its parts rarely delivers the expected cogency, a major issue with the film whose blame can be laid at the feet of its chronological order with so many other YA adaptations, better adaptations that understand where craftiness and creativity belong in such a big-screen treatment. The film's message is clear and meaningful. It's just a shame nothing within that message could amount to more than another spark. On top of the fire that's already spread The Giver ends up not amounting to much.
Jeremy's Rating: 6 out of 10
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