A bizarre post-apocalyptic amalgam of the current geographical and technological zeitgeist, spaghetti westerns and Star Wars, Young Ones is an intriguing, if not ingenious motion picture. Directed by Jake Paltrow – yes, the brother of Gwyneth – it is an unassured science fiction film with loving affection for its inherent influences and invention, set en-route toward fans of science fiction, westerns and even video-store cult films.
It follows the lineage of three men surviving in the dust bowl of the near American future. Each of their stories is told in a respective chapter beginning with Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon), a farmer who tends to what is left of his dirt fields. He holds steadfast to the idea that his land is still fertile despite the lack of any water. Motorbike bad boy Flem (Nicholas Hoult) wants Ernest’s land but also has the eye of Mary (Elle Fanning), Ernest’s daughter who reluctantly tends to their house after their mother is put in a care facility. In the middle of it all is young Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Ernest’s adolescent son who learns to survive on his wits in the barren landscape.
It is clunky, but it brims with imagination and succeeds with proficiency in most of the many – maybe too many – concepts writer/director Jake Paltrow attempts to plant in the film’s bleak landscape.
From the get-go, Young Ones is crowded with postcard scenery. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captures the desolate sandscapes with a muted beauty. Though the terrain is unidentified, the South African filming locations evoke memories of Tatooine and the outback of Mad Max. These visions are enhanced further by the film format and hokey transitions that harken back to the original Star Wars trilogy as well. This timeless aesthetic Paltrow and Nuttgens have come close to perfecting is one of the films most effective charms. Paltow’s interest in robotics and technology of the near future may be the film’s most fascinating element. The most evocative image from the film is the robotic donkey that Ernest invests in as it crawls through the rocks and hills. Much like Neil Blomkamp’s two features, Paltrow harnesses the inevitable truth that complex technology will soon be available to all walks of life – a concept that Young Ones exposes very well. The concepts of water politics and resource transfer are uncanny in their relevance to the current drought across the American southwest. While it lacks insight into solutions – that isn’t what Paltrow strives for – the narrative surrounding water trade is again all too close to the near-future. Complex thematic interests may be too broad for such a small film, but they create a fascinating world. It may be just a growing pain, but he seems much more fascinated at the aesthetics of the world he has written, than exploring their implications.
The hopeless, cutthroat atmosphere is one of Young Ones’ strongest elements. It’s rather slow-paced in moments, but as a quasi-western, it unfolds with a careful, slow-burning unease of – dare I say it – John Ford and Sergio Leone. Unfortunately, Paltrow lacks the prowess to really trust in his actors and settings to sharpen the film’s fangs. Michael Shannon does rather well, but dull expository dialogue sets the film back into stale melodrama. Fanning and Hoult are the biggest victims of this – especially Fanning whose character may be the weakest of her young career. While Hoult’s charisma allows him to work a little with the material, Fanning overcompensates to an irritating level. Young Kodi Smit-McPhee is the film’s secret weapon. Anchoring a shaky second act, Smit-McPhee completely commandeers a compelling third act to its explosive conclusion, much like he proved in 2010’s Let Me In, the little-seen, but excellent remake of Let the Right One In. He is an actor who is beyond his years in his understanding of restraint and subtext.
As peculiar as it is, Young Ones is a timeless and – maybe unintentionally so – timely slice of science fiction. It is clunky, but it brims with imagination and succeeds with proficiency in most of the many – maybe too many – concepts writer/director Jake Paltrow attempts to plant in the film’s bleak landscape. Down to its credits, his sophomore feature is a unique beast, an admirable – maybe quite successful – experiment that seems destined for reexamination in the near or distant future. Its potential for cult success is undeniable because Young Ones has a lot to love. It may feel a little mismanaged at times, but hats off to Mr. Paltrow for one of the most inventive features in Hollywood that is all too often bleeding out of innovation.