[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Young Ones opens today in limited release.]
There are rare times when everything in a movie can work—its direction, performances, etc.—and yet the picture somehow comes up short. This is the problem with trying to judge movies piecemeal. For all of the different aspects that make up a picture, we have to evaluate it as a whole. Obviously, we can call attention to its outstanding aspects, but they have to lead, for better or worse, to some kind of impression. Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones is remarkable in how it does so much right, and yet it leaves the viewer completely cold. Its strengths are undeniable and its flaws are subtle, so subtle that they can be confusing as to how such a technically superb picture can be so ineffective.
Set in post-apocalyptic future, water has become a scarce commodity. There’s no more rain, and Ernest Holm’s (Michael Shannon) well has dried up. Ernest is a recovering alcoholic, and he wants to set a positive example for his son, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they survive by bartering goods to local pipeline workers. Ernest is also trying to convince the pipeline workers to extend the pipe to irrigate his small farm, and his life is made even more difficult by trying to protect his rebellious daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) from the advances of the cunning Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult).
The setting is terrific. It’s a Western in sci-fi clothing. There’s highly advanced technology, but it’s used sparingly. The most prominent piece of tech is a quadruped robot that can be used to carry supplies and equipment. Other than that, it’s mostly a world of pickup trucks, motorcycles, shotguns and other familiar items. Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography lovingly pans over the vast landscapes, capturing both their harshness and their odd beauty. It’s not the majestic vistas from classic Westerns, but it fits nicely with the balance of brutal reality and tough perseverance Paltrow is going for. The director then overlays the picture with Nathan Johnson’s mournful, gorgeous score.
The movie also features amazing performances from its three lead actors. Shannon remains as reliable as always, and while he’s known for his intense characters, Ernest is completely restrained. He’s committed to being responsible for his family, but he’s also aware of being one step away from falling off the wagon, and the consequences could be devastating under the circumstances. Smit-McPhee also turns in his best performance to date, and watching Jerome mature and make tough choices is marvelous.
But the most ingenious bit of casting is Hoult. Flem could have easily been a shallow, easily dismissed heel, but through Hoult, Flem becomes the most interesting character in the movie. Even when Flem is at his most despicable, Hoult makes the character sympathetic, and that sympathy re-frames all of the relationships of the picture. Hoult’s demeanor is so earnest and endearing that it’s tough to loathe his character.
So if the film does such a magnificent job on so many fronts, why didn’t it connect with me? I’ve been puzzling over that one all day, and the closest I can come to an answer is the movie isn’t really about anything. Young Ones isn’t vapid, but it’s hollow. There are possibly some thematic scraps floating around dealing with honor and responsibility, which are staples of the Western genre, and there’s also a connection between Ernest, Flem, and Jerome’s behaviors. But it never ties together in a way that lands an impact. The barrier always remains between an immaculately crafted picture and an emotionally distant core.
The fact that this barrier even exists makes Young Ones, at the very least, a fascinating feature, not for any themes or ideas it presents, but for why it can do everything “right” and still leave the viewer unaffected. And we want to be affected. We can appreciate the craft of filmmaking to no end, but if it doesn’t touch us in some way then it’s just noises and flashing lights on a big screen. Young Ones isn’t a cynical film or a misguided one. It’s a success in so many ways. I was fully alert and never bored, but I left feeling as empty as the film’s arid desert.