Arriving in our multiplexes with little fanfare is the latest in a seemingly endless line of Young Adult dystopian dramas taken from literary sources. Based on Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel of the same name, director Phillip Noyce does attempt to bring something different to the genre but falls short of the mark. On the surface a libertarian, anti-government parable, the film ultimately fails to engage with its target audience if the number of bored teens witnessed texting in the audience is any measure. Not being part of that demographic I was drawn to the film by the presence of two Hollywood heavyweights, Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, both featured prominently throughout the film, and the production design showcased in the trailer.
In the year 2048 the population live micro-regulated lives in achingly stylish modernist settlements atop an isolated plateau. Their emotions are chemically suppressed daily to prevent any kind of conflict and every aspect of their lives is controlled by an unseen council of Elders whose leader and public face is a surprisingly subdued Meryl Streep. Protagonist Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, recently seen in Oculus and Maleficent) is approaching the moment when he will be assigned his future role in society and is astonished to discover he will become the new Receiver of Memories, the living repository of all that was bad in the past before Order was achieved.
To this end he is trained by the Giver (a leonine Jeff Bridges, not dissimilar to his appearance in Tron: Legacy though with less neon) who lives a hermit-like existence in his private library on the edge of the plateau. Jonas quickly discovers his whole life and society has been a lie up until now and, encouraged to rebel by the Giver seeking to atone for past mistakes, he reconnects with his suppressed emotions and decides to find out what lies beyond the plateau as a means of saving his society.
With an opening third which is quietly compelling, setting up the necessary hooks to pique the audience’s curiosity, the middle third is static and talky before a final act which relies on improbable events culminating in a clichéd pursuit without ultimately delivering a satisfying resolution, the curse of modern YA films as they attempt to set up the inevitable sequel. Anyone with any familiarity with genre cinema will instantly spot traces of The Truman Show, The Village and even The Prisoner amidst numerous other influences, and while it could have been so much better it unfortunately fails to cohere.
Of the mature cast, Streep’s unflatteringly wigged and lit character is underwritten, her formidable acting talents left un-deployed until the final shoutdown with Jeff Bridges which is too little, too late. Bridges plays the Giver as a wounded old lion with more than a touch of his recent Rooster Cogburn in his snuffling and mumbling. There is also little chemistry between him and young Aussie soap star Thwaites who is a sympathetic, competent lead but belongs to the legion of bland, interchangeable juveniles that plague modern US film and television.
The director, Phillip Noyce rose to international prominence in 1989 with the genre-busting thriller Dead Calm and, like many other feature directors of his generation, now works mainly in US television. His work in The Giver, within the confines of its limited budget, is solid but tonally problematic and ultimately unengaging. In a bold choice for a YA drama Noyce uses monochrome for the first third of the film, only allowing colour to bleed in as Jonas’ emotions awaken, a reminder of Gary Ross‘ Pleasantville.
Unfortunately, Noyce resorts to crass pop culture to express this awakening – the memories given to Jonas could be straight out of an advertising campaign for Coca-Cola or Red Bull, and when the Giver exposes him to music for the first time, instead of playing one of the great pieces of the modern catalogue he picks out some third rate piece of lift music on his impeccably-tuned grand piano, and the very last shot in the film of Jonas’ destination, his vision of an idealised home, is lifted straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
On reflection, however, there is a suspicion that Noyce may have a hidden, subversive agenda, hinting that the potency of cheap popular culture manipulates a consumer base almost as much as a totalitarian state overtly manipulates its citizens.