Given the proliferation of dystopian young adult adaptations in recent years, it’s hard to imagine why it took so long for this film version of Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel “The Giver” to come to fruition.
After all, the Newbery Medal winner has been a scholastic staple for years and is widely considered to be the seminal work in the genre.
“The Giver” is special because it focuses on the interior lives of its characters and the emotional truths of an existence blinded to all the qualities that make humans human. It is not predicated on giant combat set pieces or amplified class dichotomies, a la “The Hunger Games” and its many imitators.
The movie is directed by Australian veteran Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger”) with a sharp consistency of vision that includes several radical aesthetic choices for a picture of this scale. Set in “the community,” a seemingly idyllic world populated by automatons who have been robbed of their humanity by a mandated medication regimen, the movie plays out in a world in which citizens don’t feel anything, don’t express themselves and can’t even see color.
Noyce shoots the opening scenes in black and white, a logical choice that’s nonetheless an audacious one for a work on the multiplex scale, and he establishes this antiseptic milieu with a matter-of-factness that makes the Pavlovian citizenry all the more unsettling.
Only The Giver (Jeff Bridges), assigned as the communal keeper of memories, can fully process just how wrong, how inhuman, this is. Protagonist Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), selected to be The Giver’s replacement, awakens to all he is missing, as he learns about the joys of sledding across fresh snow, singing, dancing and falling in love, as well as the pain of war and death, and so much more.
Rather than being driven by plot — though Jonas starts to rebel, angering the nominal bad guy played by none other than Meryl Streep — the movie is structured around sensory experiences. The lucid black and white gives way to extraordinarily vivid montages of color that play like some kind of drug trip as The Giver trains Jonas. As Jonas gradually starts to see beyond the black and white, images such as love interest Fiona’s (Odeya Rush) red hair take on added gravitas.
The younger actors (including Taylor Swift, who turns up in a brief part) are basically nondescript blanks, but the veterans, led by Bridges in Zen master mode, give the film a measure of authenticity.
The picture stays true to the spirit of its acclaimed source material by maintaining its focus on what makes it special: its story of a young man learning what it means to be alive. If the film plays a bit like the mainstream, dystopian version of “Boyhood,” that’s certainly not a bad thing.
Directed by Phillip Noyce | Starring Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep | Rated PG-13