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'The Giver': Another Day, Another YA Dystopia

The Giver is too much like today's other YA dystopias, but without a cool girl at its center.

The Giver

Director: Phillip Noyce
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård, Cameron Monaghan, Emma Tremblay, Taylor Swift
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-08-15 (General release)
"I'm kind of sorry we have to have the Taylor Swift label instead of the Newbery Medal. But that's okay."

-- Lois Lowry

"We do not speak of it." Mother (Katie Holmes) makes a stern face when she reminds her daughter Lily (Emma Tremblay) of this rule about the past. Mother's stern face at this moment makes clear her investment in the order she represents. Specifically, Mother is an officer in the Department of Justice, tasked with maintaining an order that depends on no one asking questions or knowing what's happened. And indeed, as Lily gazes up at Mother, the eight-year-old's face reflects her shrinking into obedience. Good girls don't deviate.

Mother's stern face makes her look immediately odious in The Giver, yet another movie calibrated to initiate YA-novels-based franchise (this particular novel is by Lois Lowry). Mother is set alongside another grim woman, Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), with whom she works daily to preserve order and, as the general mantra has it, "curb any impulse that will set you apart from others." This new order allows for no emotions, no arts, and no colors. As the film begins (in black and white), Mother and an exceedingly compliant Father (Alexander Skarsgård) are raising Lily and about to send teenager Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) into adulthood, via the annual "Ceremony of the Grown," whereby he and his peers are assigned their roles in life going forward. While most of these kids fit into standard slots (drone pilot, birth mother, groundskeeper), Jonas is special, possessed of multiple attributes and "the capacity to see beyond."

No surprise, this capacity is as much a burden as it is a blessing. To start, it sends Jonas to see the Giver (Jeff Bridges, who spent nearly two decades working to bring this 1993 novel to screen). As the Receiver, Jonas will absorb by a magical touching-of-wrists process all manner of collective memories, including sensations of art and music, as well as birth, generosity, and love and… of course, death and war and other unpleasantness.

That these memories are rendered in mobile frames, sometimes approximating an immersive point of view, suggests that someone, somewhere, recorded them. That they are trite and generic raises questions (for you, if not for Jonas, not used to asking questions) as to what sort of unimaginative, stereotypical, even racist B-roll-looking choices (black tribal dancers, white folks at Christmas), have been made to designate "history."

This history never reveals the specific apocalypse that led to the current devotion to order no matter what ("We need sameness"). As Jonas' education takes place over weeks of meetings with the Giver in his isolated "dwelling" on a cliff, that is, the outskirts of the community-that-is-sameness, the boy is beset by increasing self-awareness, that is, a sense of difference. As he's unable to share his changes or knowledge with his family or the girl he likes (or would like, if liking girls was allowed), Fiona (Odeya Rush, whose warmth sets Fiona apart from every other individual in the film), Jonas is subject to the sorts of anxieties that any teenager might feel, times 100.

This dynamic constitutes just one piece of the fundamental illogic of this social and political arrangement (and apparently has something to do with the failure of the previous Receiver's education; she's played in a shimmery sort of flashback by Taylor Swift, and by the way, she plays the piano). Another piece is premised on Jonas' nightly return to his family's dwelling, where his emerging feelings of "love" lead to reprimands from Mother, prone to cut him off with the phrase, "Precision of language!"

As Jonas (with some prodding from the Giver and low-key support from Father, when he's not being hushed by Mother) begins to appreciate ambiguities and imprecisions of language and feelings too, he begins to suspect that the whole system is flawed. From here -- actually, from the first moment of the film -- you know where he's headed. Still, it's tedious that Jonas' rebellion is directed specifically against Mother and the Chief Elder too, a couple of imperious women who do their best to tamp down the warm and fuzzy impulses of the Giver and now, the Receiver, too.

Leave it to the Bad Moms to not grasp the faults in the order in which they seem so utterly invested. The film underscores the gendered emotional imbalance by setting Jonas on a rebellious path shaped not only his romantic inclinations toward Fiona (apparently not in the book), but also his affection for a new baby in Mother and Father's home. Little Gabriel inspires Jonas to make some preposterously bad plans for the night he sets for his escape, such that he ends up dragging the infant with him as he runs over all sorts of desert and tundra, seeking the border to the order, which happens to be a physical line, one he can cross, if only he can make out the silly map the Giver's got stored in his dwelling.

The silly map is like the other illogical pieces here (I won't even get into the inconsistency concerning what the Chief Elder's ostensibly all-seeing surveillance drones and cameras can see and then don't see, when convenient to Jonas' plot), which is to say, distracting. The saga sets up for a next installment, where a new order might be forged or maybe some more conflict between scared-of-life adults and imprecision-inclined kids.

The Giver is too much like today's other YA dystopias, and without a cool girl at its center. (Whether or not the source novel got to any dystopian thematics first, the movie is arriving tediously late to the franchise party.) Even as Jonas makes his own way toward becoming a new sort of Giver, giving up memories and feelings to everyone, it's hard to forget that you've seen it all before.


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