“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 the latest wave. Ironically, it wasn’t until its imitators became box office bonanzas that “The Giver” was seen 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 trafficks in the self-dramatizing emotionalism and simplistic philosophizing that are so recognizably symptomatic of the YA 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’s world, which he navigates with his best friends, Fiona ( Israeli actress Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), is one in which all conflict, hatred and distinction has been erased by cultural values of conformity and obedience.
Jonas and his contemporaries are about to find out what jobs they’ve been assigned by the chief Elder, played by Meryl Streep .”
It turns out that Jonas — who, unlike his friends and family, is able to see color — has been chosen to be a Receiver of Memory, meaning that 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 title character of “The Giver,” a bearded sage living in an isolated mountaintop aerie played with shamanic gruffness by Jeff Bridges (who doggedness was instrumental in getting the film made.)
Although Jonas is only 12 in the book, in the filmed version of “The Giver” he is 16 — and played by an Australian in his mid-20s .
But Thwaites acquits himself well in a role that makes the most of his sober, Gary Cooper-esque good looks.
Although events eventually send him on a genuine physical adventure, replete with a shattering revelation and high-stakes drone chase, most of the film traces a young man’s dawning awareness that, the ease and peacefulness of his world notwithstanding, there’s something frighteningly toxic at its core.
Ulitmately, it is apparent “The Giver” has been made with deep respect for the book that so powerfully predicted the grim universe movie teenagers now inhabit — for worse and, in this case, for better as well.