Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Written by: Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide (screenplay), Lois Lowry
Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Odeya Rush and Meryl Streep
The Giver is a bad movie, but it’s not generically bad like many of its other teen dystopia kin. It tries to recreate the world of Lois Lowry’s middle school reading staple almost too precisely, creating a totalitarian community that feels like a futuristic Pleasantville without any humor or personality. Color floods the black and white town as Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) experiences more and more new, human things, but the movie’s pulse rarely participates in that awakening.
Unfortunately, The Giver’s script has only a small fraction of Pleasantville‘s humor, though it produces many unintentional laughs. The way the characters talk, like programmed robots taught not to say things like “love,” just doesn’t translate well to the screen. This is largely a failure of performance, with cast members either going way over the top (Jeff Bridges) or comically flat (Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgaard). Brenton Thwaites, despite being much older than Jonas is in the book, finds the right tone for his emerging personality even if he feels slightly out of place.
Toward the beginning of the movie, Jonas and his friends attend a coming of age ceremony where they will be assigned their positions in the community. I remember this scene being much more interesting and suspenseful in the book (though I was in seventh grade when I read it). Jonas is skipped over by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) when it’s his turn to be assigned, but Phillip Noyce, the director, paces the scene so clumsily that it’s wasted. Instead of engaging with Jonas’ panic, he opts for generic cutting between the more famous actors.
When Jonas is finally given his job as “Receiver of Memory,” the mysteries of the job remain in tact but nothing ever feels at stake. He is tasked with receiving and carrying the totality of human experience from the person before him (Bridges), but rather than internalize that conflict the movie tacks on an elevated one with the Chief Elder. It’s a shame that the creators (and likely the studio) didn’t feel comfortable enough to let that burden take central stage, because the memory transfer scenes of dance, prayer, birth and war are actually quite moving.
Equally impressive is the brief presence of Taylor Swift as Rosemary, the failed Receiver of Memory that Jonas is replacing. Her single scene with Bridges is the most emotionally nuanced in the whole movie, and one of the few times he doesn’t oversell his character. I would have rather watched an entire movie about them.