August 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: In 'The Giver,' human spirit prevails in an oppressive future

In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy (Brenton Thwaites, right) is chosen to learn from an elderly man (Jeff Bridges) about the true pain and pleasure of the 'real' world in 'The Giver.' (Weinstein Co.)

Given a choice, man will generally choose the wrong thing.

That’s the grim, if well-informed, basis for the society in “The Giver,” the warm, thought-provoking film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s popular novel, which has become a fixture in American classrooms. As adapted by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide and directed by Phillip Noyce (“Salt,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence”), the movie is alternately a cautionary tale, a story of redemption and a salute to the human spirit, even as it questions the wisdom of that spirit.

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is coming of age in a world of no color — where difference is denied, emotions are suppressed, equanimity is paramount and everybody receives a dulling injection each day as they leave the house. Everyone has an assigned duty, families are put together by the state irrespective of bloodlines, and all go about their pre-ordained business under the watchful eye of the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep).

As the film begins, young adults are being set on their career paths. Jonas’ one friend, Asher (Cameron Monaghan from “Shameless”), is assigned the task of piloting a surveillance drone; his other friend Fiona (Odeya Rush) will be a caretaker in the nursery where babies are raised.

Jonas is given a special and precarious honor: He is to be the new generation’s receiver of memories, a living history book of sorts who will keep all the history to himself but ultimately serve as an adviser to the elders.

Of course, if he’s going to receive this information, someone’s got to give it to him, and that would be the title character, played by Jeff Bridges. Jonas hears hints early on of The Giver’s failed prior attempt to pass on his knowledge to a young woman named Rosemary (Taylor Swift).

The reason for that failure becomes apparent pretty quickly. While The Giver is tasked with passing on knowledge, he actually begins exposing Jonas to the thrill of living — emotional highs, sensory rushes, music, dance, the concept of love, none of which exist in the modern world. Eventually the flip side of things also surfaces and Jonas experiences violence, war, greed and tragedy.

The world he thought was under control turns out to be a sham. And Jonas feels the need to share the revelations he’s supposed to keep secret. Suddenly he realizes the oppression that surrounds him and everyone he knows. He wants to break free. And this does not please the chief elder.

There are some serious gaps here — if inheriting memory and knowledge is such a frazzling experience, how did The Giver and apparently many previous Givers come to be? And the story abandons all explanation as Jonas sets out on a major quest to change his world, tossing question marks every which way.

But then “The Giver” is far more concerned with big, central issues than minor particulars. Are emotions a gift or a hindrance? Is order preferable to freedom? Is the human spirit anything more than id gone amok? Is balance possible?

True, these all sound like middle school talking points, but at least they are talking points. “The Giver” offers more than just the standard clamorous post-apocalyptic claptrap that fuels far too many films these days. It dares to offer food for thought to audiences who may be starved for such after another addle-brained summer of explosions, car chases and aliens. Let’s be thankful.

'The Giver'

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence

Running time: 94 minutes

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