Dystopic 'Young Ones' Presents a Future Without Water
Gwyneth's little bro, Jake Paltrow, does a lot right and one thing wrong in his new thriller.
Set amongst the nothingness of the American desert sometime in the near future, Young Ones is stylistically compelling, but decidedly less so story-wise. It's a dystopian nightmare. Fresh water is running out and everyone is desperate. Writer/director Jake Paltrow (Gwyneth's little bro) obviously has love for the western sci-fi genre and he inserts some great imagery, but his tale is brooding and soulless.
Young Ones begins with an old-time standoff. Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon), who looks like he just walked out of The Road Warrior with his homemade goggles and pump shotgun, cuts down two would-be thieves at the local well, the most valuable place in the land. It's a rip roaring beginning. Paltrow edits between the gunslingers, their eyes, and their gats, like Sergio Leone. And the sun beats down, flaring the lens.
Young Ones is a triptych made up of chapters separated by title cards. Ernest leads the first and we meet his children, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Mary (Elle Fanning). They live together on the family farm, dried up long ago. To make ends meet, Ernest and Jerome deliver supplies to the local water workers, a labor that includes trekking a donkey over mountainous, rocky terrain .
The setting is just as prevalent a character as Ernest or anyone else. The desert can be felt in every scene, a compliment to the film's art and makeup departments. The characters are perpetually dirty, covered in the filth of their dusty surroundings. Even Mary, who seldom sees daylight due to Ernest's protective nature, has hair that looks like it's been in a bar fight. This is a story about people who've been beaten down and forgotten for all intents and purposes.
Some semblance of the old way of life is found at a local auction when Ernest needs to upgrade from his donkey to a machine. It's here the film finally shows us some signs of civilization, an important conceit in a dystopian film. We need to know what has happened to society. Ernest and Jerome also visit Ernest's wife in a care facility, where she's a permanent resident. Both of these scenes introduce futuristic concepts: The machine Ernest wins at auction looks like a basket on four legs and moves like an AT-AT Walker from Star Wars. And Ernest's wife, who's missing her legs, walks with the assistance of a marionette-like system. These sci-fi elements are imaginative without being outlandish and the CGI work is flawless. One thing missing, however, is a name for Ernest's walking machine. It's referred to simply, and yawn-inducingly, as "The Machine." That's not gonna cut it.
As the film saunters onward, it becomes clear Ernest's job will land him in trouble. It's a coveted position the small community is envious of. Ernest has access to the well and his supplies could fetch triple on the black market. But Holm remains steadfast, holding onto the belief he can convince the water guys to send some down his way to irrigate his still fertile land. It's that hope that endears him to his innocent son, but not to his daughter, who "hates him" and wants to run off with a neighbor, Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult).
It's Lever who's the center of the film's second chapter. A scrappy, ambitious young man who wants a better life for himself and Mary, Flem doesn't have Ernest's scruples and risks everything for some quick cash. But Flem's plan ripples through the film. People die and the truth is hidden. Jerome, who learns to grow up fast, becomes the story's hero as he takes over the third chapter.
The biggest problem with Young Ones is its inability to develop character. The setting is a classic of the genre: a virtual wasteland, devoid of hope. The actors are worthy and intense, especially Shannon, who is simply great in everything. And Paltrow adds enough visual style, to go along with his CGI machines, to make the movie interesting to look at. We, unfortunately, just don't care about anyone. Violence is a tricky thing. When used properly it can be gut-wrenching in every way. But used carelessly, it becomes exploitive—a shortcut to our sympathies. Young Ones has moments of potentially impactful violence, but it doesn't earn them because the characters aren't fully formed. It's an incomplete film, but one that makes me interested in what Paltrow does next.