The summer’s biggest cinematic surprise must be the sight of legendary actress Meryl Streep in black and white as a maternalistic movie villain who proclaims “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong every single time.”
The movie is “The Giver,” adapted from Lois Lowry’s very popular young-adult novel of a dystopia where every extreme is banished in a world of blandly pacified “sameness.” It also stars Jeff Bridges, who has wanted to make this movie for decades, but finally saw it emerge from a most unlikely partnership: the children’s-lit moviemakers at Walden Media and Harvey Weinstein, whose most recent movie “Philomena” raged against vicious Catholic nuns in Ireland.
In “The Giver,” the teenaged protagonist Jonas is thrust into a moral conflict when he is assigned the highest responsibility: to be the “receiver of memory.” In a strictly controlled world where there is no war, hunger, or even weather extremes like winter, Jonas becomes the only member of society who can even know what has been eliminated.
The world of “sameness” is entirely in black and white, but as Jonas comes to see all that is wrong in the world he grew up in, he begins to see in color. This is where some older moviegoers might see a similarity to the 1998 film “Pleasantville,” where two teenagers were transported into a prim black-and-white Fifties sitcom town and turned it in into color by introducing premarital sex and “dangerous” books and naked paintings.
But while “Pleasantville” was a propagandistic attack on social conservatism – where the black-and-white folks started to discriminate against the artistic and liberated “people of color” – the conservatism in “The Giver” is subtler. Jonas slowly realizes that the mandate for “sameness” and calm has led to a horror: a hidden elimination of babies and elderly people who are “released” from the community as unproductive.
The film's climax comes when Jonas attempts to rescue one "non-thriving" baby and get outside the borders of the only world he's ever known.
This film is not a clunky mockery of “Leave It to Beaver” nostalgists, nor a tub-thumping jeremiad against Planned Parenthood. It’s a much more philosophical, fictional scenario that ponders where our desire to banish all conflict could smother all our passions, and where our desire for peace and equality could lead to stultifying social control.
There hasn't been an uproar over the movie from feminists, especially from The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, who loathed the "cutesy" pro-child plots of "Juno" and "Knocked Up." Perhaps the elimination of babies after birth -- ordered by tyrants and not by women's "right to choose" -- sounds like apples and oranges.
Instead, Hornaday found the movie and its climax dramatically satisfying: "Although those memories will eventually send him on a genuine physical adventure, replete with a shattering revelation and high-stakes drone chase, most of the film traces a young man's dawning awareness that, the ease and peacefulness of his world notwithstanding, there's something frighteningly toxic at its core."
Washington Post culture blogger Alyssa Rosenberg argued that the Left could identify its own messages in “The Giver,” that women in that world are assigned as mere vessels of baby production or “nurturers” of the young, or that the movie’s drones are an allegory of Obama-era domestic surveillance.
Then she said the movie is too insubstantial to fight over: “I suspect the reason that liberals have not rushed to contest the politics of ‘The Giver’ is that the movie is not particularly worth claiming.”
That's simply expressing the wish that the movie just fades away. Its early box office doesn't suggest it will be a big hit (I thought it might have more appeal with young moviegoers than it seems to have so far.) This is a movie with a brain, a heart, and a wise old soul.