'Young Ones' has imagination and style ... and no idea how to put the two together
Young Ones Screen Media Films
Director: Jake Paltrow
Screenplay: Jake Paltrow
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Shannon, Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Aimee Mullins, Robert Hobbs and Alex McGregor
Rated R / 1 hour, 40 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Jake Paltrow shows such a gift for composition and world-building in Young Ones, his ambitious second feature film, that it's a genuine shame he can't write worth a damn. You get a real sense of vision watching it, as he slowly unveils new details and unexplored corners of this postapocalyptic American frontier.
This is a future whose technological resources are like precious little anachronisms - found items left over from an extinct civilization. The film is, for all intents and purposes, a straight-up Western, and while that genre and science fiction have been commonly combined for decades, this specific blend is particularly, and peculiarly, interesting. The juxtaposition of dry desolation - captured by Paltrow and cinematographer in Giles Nuttgens in wide, sparse compositions - with the sight of futuristic robotics is an interesting one. It's the visual palette that keeps this world looking consistent; lots of browns and greys and light blues, as if color itself has long since begun to fade away and everything has been draped in a thin layer of dust.
This world is not quite an Interstellar-like dust bowl, but it's close enough, with food and water scarce and irrigation a rarity - the latter in part because, breakdown of civilization notwithstanding, bureaucratic red tape remains in full force. Splinter groups selling water and alcohol populate the land, looking out for their own interests while farmland continues to die off, and families with it. One such family is the Holm clan, headed by the patriarch Ernest (Michael Shannon), a recovering alcoholic trying to make ends meet and take care of his two teenage children - Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the de facto lead character, and Mary (Elle Fanning), who is sexually blossoming far younger and far quicker than her dad would like. While Jerome is a contemplative observer - looking up to his dad if not quite understanding him, and eventually being forced to grow into manhood - Mary is restless and passionate. She wants nothing to do with her father's rules or his values.
She is, of course, involved with the local Bad Boy, a somewhat older kid inexplicably named Flem Lever and played by Nicholas Hoult (who, frankly, doesn't possess the kind of inner volatility and coarseness that would benefit the role). He rides a motorcycle, wears a leather jacket, and has an attitude. And he just so happens to have business interests that overlap with those of Ernest.
A primary source of conflict is a carrier robot for which Ernest outbids Flem at an auction one afternoon. Both need the machine to transport and trade supplies (bottles of water chief among them) and thus support their families. In lieu of mules or cattle, such a machine is a necessity, but there aren't very many available. At least not unless you want to cross the border into the city and get one at retail prices; and even if you wanted to, the border patrol might make things difficult.
The carrier robot itself is one of the film's most intriguing inventions. I especially like seeing it in wide shots, walking alongside one character or another like a trusted animal. While it's built almost like a large, headless dog, in wider shots you see that it moves like a giant praying mantis.
The film is split up into three segments, which aren't especially distinct except that each one takes on the perspective of a different character. Title cards introduce each portion - first Ernest, then Flem, then Jerome. (Heaven forbid we get a Western that offers the one female character's point of view.) It's a rather superfluous gesture, especially considering the story itself is continuous and linear, but then again this is a movie full of superfluous gestures. (Not to mention, a film can easily and clearly shift narrative point of view without having to announce each shift. Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, to cite one recent example, did this seamlessly.)
But getting into story details is tricky not only because each segment holds key secrets, but because the storytelling is so poor and at times nonsensical. In fact, the most pivotal event in the script is a travesty of logic.
The film also suffers from dramatic tonal shifts, both in the screenplay and in Paltrow's direction. Some of his directorial choices almost seem like they're making fun of his other directorial choices. He utilizes a lot of zoom-ins and zoom-outs, reminiscent of Kubrick on Barry Lyndon, but then he punctuates other moments with clumsy crash-zooms that have a more comedic effect that I'm not sure is intentional, and, regardless, simply doesn't work.
Nathan Johnson's terrific score balances the film's disparate elements much better than Paltrow does behind the camera. Experimental and stylistically dexterous, it reminded me of Jonny Greenwood's work on both There Will Be Blood and The Master. Johnson combines old-fashioned strings - which distinctly remind us of classic Western melodramas, but with a more mournful edge - with electronics, and makes particularly effective use of the harmonica, which gives certain scenes a distant, almost mythical quality.
But as great as Johnson's musical work is, and as strong as the overall sense of inventiveness and vision is at times, it's not enough to save Young Ones from all of its many missteps. Paltrow is a talented filmmaker, but in this case all of his ideas seem to be colliding and undermining one another, leaving us with a final product more frustrating than anything else.