“The Giver,” an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning young adult novel, may seem like it’s riding on the coattails of such dystopian action hits as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” But in reality, Lowry’s book may qualify as the ur-text of the form, a slim, futuristic allegory that, since it was published in 1993, has sold more than 10 million copies.
In its own way, the movie version — handsomely directed by Phillip Noyce and featuring an appealing, sure-footed cast of emerging and veteran actors — aptly reflects “The Giver’s” pride of place as the one that started it all, or at least the latest wave. Ironically, it wasn’t until its imitators became box office bonanzas that “The Giver” was seen as potentially profitable enough to produce for the big screen.
Far less noisy and graphically violent than those films, this mournful coming-of-age tale feels like their more subdued and introspective older sibling, even as it traffics in the self-dramatizing emotionalism and simplistic philosophizing that are so recognizably symptomatic of the young adult genre.
Set in an indeterminate future long after a vaguely drawn catastrophe called The Ruin, “The Giver” chronicles the story of Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a teenager who has grown up in the Communities, where the all-seeing, all-hearing Council of Elders controls everything from domestic arrangements and careers to climate and sexual “stirrings,” which are carefully regulated by way of daily morning injections.
Jonas’ world, which he navigates with his best friends Fiona (stunning Israeli actress Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), is one in which all conflict, hatred and distinction have been erased by cultural values of conformity and obedience.
As “The Giver” begins, Jonas and his contemporaries are about to find out what jobs they’ve been assigned by the chief Elder, played by Meryl Streep in a long gray wig that recalls Holly Hunter’s blunt-spoken separatist leader in the series “Top of the Lake.” Jonas — who, unlike his friends and family, is able to see color — has been chosen to be a Receiver of Memory, meaning he will soon learn all that happened before the world became the reassuringly predictable and consistent bubble in which he grew up.
His guide in this endeavor is “The Giver,” a bearded sage living in an isolated mountaintop aerie played with shamanic gruffness by Jeff Bridges. As it happens, Bridges was the prime engine in getting “The Giver” made after a decades-long struggle, during which he intended that his father, Lloyd, play the title role.
That commitment and seriousness of purpose suffuse a production that will surely please the millions of people who read “The Giver” in middle school, and for whom it became more than a good book and more like a potent talisman of their emerging notions of individuation, moral choice and transcendent self-sacrifice.
Like “The Fault in Our Stars” earlier this summer, young people have again been given their generation’s version of a message that, although not necessarily new, may feel urgent and uniquely timely to its core audience. “The Giver” has been made with deep respect for that experience and for the book that so powerfully predicted the grim universe movie teenagers now inhabit — for worse and, in this case, for better as well.
— Ann Hornaday, Washington Post
PG-13 1:31 3 stars
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush. (Contains a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action violence)