Three out of five stars
Almost 20 years in the making, producer and star Jeff Bridges helps bring Lois Lowry’s popular young adult sci-fi novel "The Giver" to the big screen by hiring director Phillip Noyce ("Salt," "The Quiet American," "Rabbit-Proof Fence") to navigate the novel’s post-apocalyptic, vanilla, idyllic and yet stringent vision.
Please note, this review isn’t coming from someone who’s read the book, but I know enough about it to highlight a couple of differences, chief among them that the main character, Jonas, is 12 years old in the novel. In the movie, he’s 17 and played by 25-year-old actor Brenton Thwaites. The movie also ends differently than the book does. I’m not going to tell you how, but I don’t think it’s a good thing.
Most of "The Giver" is shown in black and white, depicting a world with little nuance and no memories. Like some of our other favorite post-apocalyptic young adult stories ("The Hunger Games," "Insurgent") when teenagers reach a certain age, they’re assigned the task they will perform for the rest of their days as contributing members of society. That is, until they’re sent to “Elsewhere.”
Turns out, Jonas is special. The chief elder (Meryl Streep) recognizes he has certain attributes nobody else possesses, which would make him an ideal Keeper of Memories. That’s the one person who’s endowed with memories of the past, so the elders can call upon him or her for advice based on past experience. (Kind of like your crazy great uncle, only people actually listen to him). In order to assume the mantle, Jonas must train with the current Keeper of Memories, played by Jeff Bridges. That’s when Bridges goes from the Keeper of Memories, to the Giver of memories, passing them on to Jonas through a physical, psychic bonding session.
At first, the lessons are exhilarating, but they soon become terrifying and heartbreaking as Jonas learns about murder, love, hate and war. For him, the world is no longer black and white. It’s full of texture, color and nuance (and so, at this point, is the movie). While one of the most important rules of this society is not to lie, Jonas -- who discovers an awful truth about his “father” and what “Elsewhere” really is -- realizes this society, filled with people who do not lie, is itself predicated on a lie.
More than anything else, though, "The Giver" is about love: the love Jonas feels for an infant considered not good enough to contribute to the world, and the love he feels for his best friend, Fiona (Odeya Rush). It’s that love that propels Jonas into action -- and that’s when the movie falls apart.
Up until the last 20 minutes, director Noyce does a beautiful job weaving this story together, chronicling Jonas’ discovery of emotions and the world around him, and exploring his relationship with the Giver. But the ending? I can’t blame Noyce for that. The writing and plot becomes so trite and predictable that by the time it ends, "The Giver" is wrapped in a neatly-tied, feel-good bow. The only thing that could’ve made it more treacly is if it had ended with a Christmas carol. Oh, wait…