Adolescence is a time of disorienting hurt and pain, which makes it a perpetually popular cinematic trope. Yet one of its potentially longest-lasting injuries has hardly been explored onscreen: the shock of awareness that comes through learning history.
For many students, the upending of their seemingly functional world and the outwardly sane people in it probably begins with a middle-school curriculum about the Holocaust. Future lessons (about slavery, religious slaughters, mass rape as a war tactic) can be as potent a catalyst for an identity crisis as the more common plot twist of “he’s not your real father.”
When humanity can be capable of such evil, it’s impossible not to ask, “What am I?”
In the big-screen adaptation of Lois Lowry’s children’s classic “The Giver,” director Philip Noyce perfectly captures the wonder and despair that are the emotional consequences of learning about the past. There’s nothing so prosaic as reading books or writing papers in this brisk teen action thriller, though. Newly appointed historian Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, “Maleficent”) is simply imparted knowledge from his teacher, The Giver (Jeff Bridges), through the laying of hands.
If the film aces its depiction of the dawning horror and social alienation that comes with studying yesteryear, the rest is largely a failure. “The Giver” is an anti-totalitarian allegory so farcically hyperbolic it feels like only a teenager could have come up with it.
Jonas unknowingly lives in a dystopia of dystopias, an island of artificiality and regimentation where there’s nothing so human as kissing, dancing, or music. Dreams, too, are a foreign concept, as are animals, weather and privacy. The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep in an ashy-blond fright wig) can look into anyone’s home at any time, and her proxy, an automated message transmitted in every household, instructs citizens when to go to sleep at night. It’s a world more implausible than Dog the Bounty Hunter — or, heck, Bo the Dog — clinching the presidency in 2016.
After graduating into adulthood, Jonas is assigned to become the town’s sole “Receiver of Memories,” or historian. It’s abundantly clear from the start that he’s The Chosen One, since the budding scholar is the only one who can see snatches of color in a black-and-white world. (That’s not a metaphor; the first half of the film is either monochromatic or severely muted in color.)
The former Receiver, now The Giver, hopes to apprentice the boy without scaring him away with facts like he did his former protégé Rosemary (Taylor Swift). Once Jonas discovers why and how the Elders have banished history and instilled such docility among his fellow citizens, he decides to foment a rebellion while rescuing the town’s most vulnerable person from certain death.
Occasionally, Jonas’ initial naivete is played for a decent laugh, such as his utter confusion at a mahogany grand piano with its top up: “A table? All the food would fly to the floor!” The production design is a visual paean to geometry, with the town organized into striking, alien-ish, octagonal pods.
The “Pleasantville”-like creep into color provides a fundamental pleasure of watching grays turning into rainbows. And if the younger actors, including Jonas’ friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan, TV’s “Shameless”) fail to impress, at least a hopeful Bridges and a Hobbes-ian Streep share a riveting scene debating civilization and its discontents.
Despite these chance felicities, though, “The Giver” feels pinned and tucked into place, evincing a too-smooth surface with all the standard narrative folds and corners. The picture is more human than the people it depicts, but it merely goes and ends where you’d expect it to, save for a gruesomely stupid final two minutes that surprises only with its laziness.
The annals of pro-education PSAs is filled with embarrassments. “The Giver” is a shinier but no more substantive improvement over a poster of Smokey Bear declaring, “School is cool.”