Jeff Bridges teaches Brenton Thwaites about the mysteries of the planet in "The Giver." Credit: The Weinstein Company
‘The Giver’ Director: Philip Noyce Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
In “The Giver,” a young adult named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) discovers that his clean, peaceful, lilywhite utopia is actually a dystopia, with “Elders” (led by Meryl Streep, in an undermining white shaggy dog ‘do) maintaining peace by forbidding the populace to know about history, feelings and anything from the outside world. Thing is, it’s fighting its own internal battle against the cliches of what has become a packed YA movie genre. How’d that go?
Helen Mirren (in funny hair) and Jeff Bridges play bad-Elder-good-Elder (respectively) in the dystopian Utopia of "The Giver." Credit: The Weinstein Company
“The Giver” is not just another YA movie. In fact, its source is one of the prototypes of this new wave. Lois Lowry’s novel came out in 1993 and, as many teens know, has been a favorite among outside-the-box educators. A film version has been in the works for ages. At one point Bill Cosby’s company owned the rights. No less than Jeff Bridges — who plays the title character: an elder who actually does know about humanity's past and is tasked with imparting that to Jonas, for reasons not terribly well-explained — has been working forever on an adaptation. He even wanted to make one with his father, Lloyd, in the role he wound up playing.
Unfortunately the long gestation period not only robs it of some of its unique power, it forces it to adapt certain (but not all) genre tropes. Like “The Host,” it partially ruins the surprise of its world in the opening narration track, with a driven, flat-voiced Jonas spilling most of the rules right away. There’s a strict curfew and weird bicycles. There are no surnames, dreams or animals. Touching outside the family is forbidden, and everyone must use “precise language” (which seems a little vague). Most importantly, everyone is assigned a career they will hold until they’re old enough to be “retired to Elsewhere” (i.e., murdered, natch). Everyone’s a mere cog, and so, to a degree, is the movie, which of course has three sequels waiting to be adapted.
Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush touch hands in one of the most romantic scenes in "The Giver." Credit: The Weinstein Company
But “The Giver” distinguishes itself in a few ways. It’s about a boy, for one, in a genre that has drifted away from the Y-chromosome. This is a touch retrograde, especially because the love interest — Jonas’ childhood friend (Odeya Rush), with whom he shares hesitant glances right out of a Regency costume drama — exists solely to require rescuing. Then again, it’s not really strong on action — one of the hallmarks of YA movies. In fact, the action scenes are weak — strange, since director Philip Noyce once helmed films like “Patriot Games.” It’s more interested in the cerebral, with Jonas spending most of his screentime hanging with Jeff Bridges’ “The Giver.” He’s basically the Haymitch Abernathy of this world: the one, weary, cynical elder.
The Giver-Jonas strand is fairly original, but little else in the film is. In fact, when “The Giver” isn’t reminiscent of recent YA movies, it’s reminiscent of other, very famous dystopias. The notion of a cut-off-civilization is nothing new, while killing off people at a certain age while pretending to send them to a glorious after life is very “Logan’s Run.” Granted, not many saw the Swedish film “The Bothersome Man,” which also depicts a bland utopia (in that case, the after life), but that film did it with far more rigor, as well as actual jokes.
In "The Giver," Jeff Bridges finally spends time with cameo star Taylor Swift. Credit: The Weinstein Company
But there are bigger problems
In fact, another sign of its conformity is its relentless, oppressive humorlessness. This is a premise that’s rich for at least amusing concepts, but it can’t even get much mileage out of having our earnest lead get schooled by The Dude. It’s a very earnest film, made for people who’s never seen a dystopia and think it’s original — or who’ve never seen a YA movie and think the same thing.
The scenes between Bridges and Thwaites are the best, with The Giver sending Jonas on little mind trips that put him into scenes, “Quantum Leap”-style, from before whatever apocalypse presumably felled most of humanity. (He goes sledding, he sees other cultures and he even goes to ‘Nam.) These sequences are done in mad, sensuous rushes that overwhelm both Jonas and the audience.
Other stylistic moves are less successful. The most noticeable is the way the film starts in black-and-white, then adds color once Jonas learns more about the world. It’s a knock-off of “Pleasantville,” but not a very good one, in part because Noyce doesn’t find a smooth way to make it work, and because the color scheme, once colors invade the frame, are muted to the point of being barely noticeable. It’s just another way the film’s noble intentions are ruined by a so-so effort.