The Giver is more simple and raw than the rest of today’s teen dystopias that try to cram in unnecessary backstory and love triangles. (Original author Lois Lowry published her novel in 1993, which makes it officially the cool aunt of Katniss and the kids.)
The story picks up several generations after humanity has done something so awful that our descendants have wiped it from memory. They’ve forcibly forgotten a lot of other things, too: how to kiss, how to clap, and how to lie. Their climate-controlled mesa eliminated disruptions like weather and animals so long ago that a stuffed toy elephant is mistakenly thought to be a mythical hippo, a speedy beast with five legs. To keep the peace, everyone’s mood is medicated in the morning. Sure, they’ve sacrificed the ability to see color — the better to eradicate racism — but at least there’s no fear, no hate, no envy, no violence, and no risk. In short, it’s a helicopter parent’s utopia.
Teenagers, of course, would hate it if they were missing out on dancing and lust. But only one, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), is learning what they’ve lost. He’s been appointed the Keeper of Memories — the sage who uses the mistakes of the past to advise the leaders of the present — and his trainer, the out-going Keeper (Jeff Bridges), is charged with filling him in on the good and bad of what mankind has lost: crowd-surfing and Tiananmen Square and polar bears and Nelson Mandela raising a fist.
Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) leans heavily on montages that cut to Jonas startled and heavy with the weight of what he’s just learned, and as he furtively cuts back on his meds, the film slowly saturates from black-and-white to pale pastels to the full, rich rainbow of life, including the auburn hair that graces the childhood friend (Odeya Rush) he now realizes he loves. (A word his caretaker, played by Katie Holmes, sniffs is “so antiquated it no longer makes sense.”)
What’s Jonas going to do about his hermetically uncool community? You can probably guess, despite the town elder’s (Meryl Streep) caution that, “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong every single time.” But teens and preteens who choose to buy tickets to The Giver, an imperfect but straightforward charmer that respects their intelligence, could choose much, much worse.