My review of The Giver, from the Lois Lowry novel, with Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites

On Monday, August 11, 2014 I attended the virtual World Premiere of The Giver, broadcast live to select movie theaters around the country, from the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. The screening began just minutes after we learned of Robin Williams' untimely passing. In some ways, as star/producer Jeff Bridges acknowledged on the red carpet, and repeated in his introduction to the film along with producer Harvey Weinstein, there are many messages in The Giver which are even more salient when reflecting on the loss of this amazing man -- although to be more specific would give too much away, and this is a spoiler-free review. Those who've read the book understand. For those who haven't, you must see this extraordinary movie.

The Giver takes place in a tight-knit post-apocalyptic society devoid of feelings and emotions. The Elders who rule have, through generations of indoctrination and the use of daily-administered drugs (anti-personality vaccinations), been able to reduce all humans to little more than lifelike robots. All memories of the past have been wiped out. They sit in judgment of citizens' transgressions, never far from the gazing eye of not-so-hidden cameras which raise the creep quotient even more. The film opens on a 16th birthday ceremony/exhibition in Elder self-indulgence, with the entire community in attendance, in which children are given their assigned adult jobs (not unlike the teeth-grinding experience of med students receiving their internships). This selection will govern the rest of their lives, and the succeeding story revolves around several teens and the paths chosen for them by The Elders, particularly "The Giver" (Jeff Bridges) and fresh-faced, earnest Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who possesses the special qualities required for his coveted post-adolescent life role. The presence of icon Meryl Streep as the eminent Chief Elder, with three Oscar wins and an additional, staggering, 15 nominations, gives The Giver even more gravitas.       

Director Phillip Noyce's sweet, wonderfully refreshing movie took 18 years to go from the pages of Lois Lowry's Newbery Medal-winning book ("YA novel," they like to call it, as if only teens would appreciate it, but I digress...) to the big screen, largely due to the unrelenting efforts of star/producer Jeff Bridges. Ironically, he wasn't old enough to take on the role at the time, Lowry said, so perhaps the drawn-out process was meant to be. Several of the actors weren't born yet, and Brenton Thwaites, whose Jonas is the heart and soul of the film, was only seven. 25 now, he plays a teenager quite convincingly (in fact, he could pass for 15 in his first scene) and this Aussie has perfected his American accent over the years. (He did so in Oculus, as well, with a stellar performance in one of my Top 10 from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and one of my Top 15 English Language Narratives of the Year.)

Adapting this modern-day classic was the task of Oscar-nominated writer Robert B. Weide (for Best Documentary as director of 1998's Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth) and Michael Mitnick, in his film debut. Weide's other claim to fame is as director and producer of 53 episodes of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm over a 12-year period from 1999-2011. Shooting began in late 2013 on location in Utah as well as Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa.

A celebrated writer, cinematographer, actor, editor. and producer in own right, Noyce has directed over two dozen features, as well as countless short films and television shows. The New South Wales, Australia native's most celebrated works include Newsfront, Dead Calm, Blind Fury, Patriot Games, Sliver, Clear and Present Danger, The Saint, The Bone Collector, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American, Catch a Fire, and Salt. He has 30 awards and nominations to his credit from film festivals, critics associations, and other esteemed industry groups. Among them are three Australian Film Institute trophies, including two in 1978 for Newsfront (Best Original Screenplay and Best Director) and in 2002 for Rabbit-Proof Fence, which won Best Film. 

In addition to Noyce's veteran sensibilities, The Giver's high production values owe much to the dedication of US backers led by Walden Media and The Weinstein Company, who are also distributing the film domestically. The movie is breathtakingly gorgeous on so many levels, visually, aurally, and in its storyline with its timely implications.

The picture begins in black and white (monochromatic, actually) and doles out color as the narrative progresses -- and calls for it. On the face of it, this doesn't seem like a particularly powerful device. But this was the first time in my life I've been moved to tears by a shot of a sunset. There are other "wow" moments to be savored, including one where the audience literally gasped in appreciation of the visuals, highlighted by Ross Emery's (The Matrix franchise, Superman Returns, The Wolverine) stunning cinematography and underscored by the lush, sweeping music of twice-Oscar-nominated composer Marco Beltrami (for 3:10 to Yuma and The Hurt Locker). Kudos as well to Oscar-nominated editor Barry Alexander Brown (for the 1979 doc The War at Home) for keeping a relatively slow pace throughout much of the film, a bold and potentially risky decision in a landscape of films filled with one-twentieth of a second cuts. Much of the above-the-line team, from writers to cinematographer to editor, come from the world of documentaries. It was a curious move on the part of the filmmakers that pays off handily in their contributions to realism and believability, which is where The Giver packs a powerful punch.        

Most of all, the film works because of the very palpable chemistry and affection between Jeff Bridges and Brenton Thwaites. As teacher and student, surrogate father and son, the often-delightful pas de deux between The Giver and Jonas is central to the narrative, which required matching personalities rarely seen among men in cinema -- both are intelligent, thoughtful souls, with a sweet and gentle nature that runs counter to the macho, dominant male characters that dominate movies. In contrast, this allows Chief Elder Meryl Streep to play a convincing villainess. Jonas' mother and father (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård) are excellent in support as pseudo-parental nonentities, along with the boy's peers -- Cameron Monaghan as the fiery Asher and would-be romantic interest Odeya Rush as Fiona -- and nine-year-old sister Lilly, played by the precociously talented Emma Tremblay. (Only the children have names.) Taylor Swift has some brief but delightfully suprising onscreen time.

While The Giver can generally be labeled a sci-fi drama, it has more in common with classic television series like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and The Prisoner, along with films like Fahrenheit 451, 1984 and Fritz Lang's Metropolis, than modern movie science fiction like Star Wars/Trek or The Hunger Games franchise. The special effects are dazzling but not essential to what is, ultimately, a character-driven coming of age story. It's a relatively slow-paced, quiet film, especially through most of its second act, which may frustrate some youngsters but should appeal to adults and the more mature teens the book has captivated. It is not an action/adventure picture...it's pensive, dreamy, emotional, and touches the heart in ways few films do today, especially in this genre.

The Giver is not for the cynical. It's a departure from typical Hollywood fare (it's a Weinstein release) and much more cerebral than the sci-fi actioners post-2001 (the film). Has anyone ever told you that you "wear your heart on your sleeve?" (Or do you define yourself that way?) The Giver is for you.

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The Giver is rated PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence. It opens at approximately 2800 locations this Friday through The Weinstein Company.

CONNECT:

OFFICIAL SITE: thegiverfilm.com
TWITTER: @thegivermovie
FACEBOOK: facebook.com/TheGiverFilmOfficial
INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/giverfilm
TUMBLR: thegivermemory.tumblr.com

Two official trailers are below, along with the OneRepublic video for Ordinary Human, their song which plays over the closing credits.


The Giver - Official Trailer - The Weinstein Company

Coming to theaters August 15, 2014! The haunting story of THE GIVER centers on Jonas, who lives in a seemingly ideal,…
  • Video Release: March 19, 2014
  • Length: 1.45 min
  • Views: 2846069

The Giver - Trailer 2 - The Weinstein Company

Coming to theaters August 15, 2014! The haunting story of THE GIVER centers on Jonas, who lives in a seemingly ideal,…
  • Video Release: June 05, 2014
  • Length: 2.58 min
  • Views: 2562345

The Giver - "Ordinary Human" by OneRepublic - The Weinstein Company

Coming to theaters August 15, 2014! The haunting story of THE GIVER centers on Jonas, who lives in a seemingly ideal,…
  • Video Release: July 10, 2014
  • Length: 1.58 min
  • Views: 2198506


Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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