MOVIE REVIEW: Young Ones
"YOUNG ONES"-- 2 STARS
The trendy topic of climate change occupies its own sub-category in the dystopian and post-apocalyptic movie genre. Some, in the words of Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah, "go big or go home" like wannabe blockbusters "Waterworld," "The Day After Tomorrow," and, to a certain extent, Pixar's "WALL-E." Even Christopher Nolan's rapidly approaching epic, "Interstellar," relies heavily on climactic climate change to set up its space journey story. Plenty other climate change-centered films go the smaller and more subversive route with their survival tales. Think "The Road Warrior," "Mad Max," "The Road," or the recent "Snowpiercer." The new film, "Young Ones," now playing in limited theatrical release and also on Video on Demand fits into that second group. It's "Mad Max" with less accents, hipster/vintage fashion instead of embarrassing rejects from an S&M catalog, and, regrettably, fewer gallons of movie-compelling fuel to push any envelopes.
"Young Ones" is set in a not-too-distant future where drought has ravaged the land and broken down society for several years now. Water is the top commodity and resource. Newer technology is mixed with cruder scraps and styles of the past for a unique world. The middle and lower class tenuously eek out meager survival among bandits and thieves in the rural areas. Beyond those outskirts, there is an unseen richer demographic of cities and a government presence that maintains a more normal society, pulls the strings, and delegates where and to whom the precious remaining water goes.
Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon is Ernest Holm, a diligent farmer and father trying to maintain his dry plot of isolated land. Until he can negotiate his land receiving irrigation, Ernest works as a helpful supply provider for the locals utilizing a robotic donkey to shoulder the labor. He parents his two teenage children, Jerome and Mary. His son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee of "The Road" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes") is an artful teen who looks up to his father, but can't match his toughness or work ethic. His daughter Mary (Elle Fanning of "Maleficent" and "Super 8") is less at peace and is resentful for needing to take her hospitalized mother's (Aimee Mullins) place as the dutiful homemaker while the men work.
The wild card for the Holm family is Flemming Lever, played by Nicholas Hoult ("X-Men: Days of Future Past" and "Jack the Giant Slayer"). The spoiled and volatile son of a powerful local landowner, Flem lies, cheats, and meddles in Ernest's business to varying degrees and negated Jerome's importance. To add insult and break the family from within, Flem has seduced Mary's affection and has gotten her pregnant. When those manhoods clash, the "Young Ones" shifts to the fallout of who comes out ahead in a world where everyone is looking for a leg up.
"Young Ones" is divided into three titled chapters that focus on Ernest, Flem, and Jerome and their characters' place in power struggle. The film is written and directed by Jake Paltrow and constitutes his second feature after 2006's romantic comedy "The Good Night" which starred Martin Freeman, Danny Devito, Penelope Cruz, and Jake's famous older sister Gwyneth. This is clearly an ambitious step up for the young filmmaker to a larger scale. He's got talent, but it hasn't been tapped yet for the right project, even after "Young Ones."
Casting isn't the issue. Anytime you have Michael Shannon, statements are going to be made in the right direction. The actors are taking their roles seriously, which shouldn't be a surprise considering the presence of Shannon's trademark intensity and Kodi Smit-McPhee's constantly introverted personality. Those are givens. So, the refreshing part is to see Elle Fanning not be a smiling, fluffy "It Girl" and for Nicholas Hoult to play a villain for a change next to Shannon and McPhee's norms.
To its credit, "Young Ones" is a cinematographer's dream, which does represent the redeeming quality to put this film a small notch above average. Veteran cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, whose previous works include the remarkably different pair of the recent mob film "Dom Hemingway" and the notorious blockbuster bomb "Battlefield Earth," paints a sprawling palette of desolation. The constant piercing sunlight of the wide landscape is merged with the intimate focus on family tension and desperate violence. To complete the mood, composer Nathan Johnson ("Looper," "Don Jon") adds a musical score that includes equal tinges of moody harpsichord and harmonica blended with an electronic base to represent both the western and science fiction mentalities of the film.
The film's writing is what gets called into question. With a blend of old western genre themes in a clever post-apocalyptic setting, the film is unique, to say the least, but is a bit of a dirty mess. Paltrow did his homework to create a detailed world and a scenario that is ripe for substantial commentary or drama, but nothing significant or valuable comes to pass to match the rich setting. Simply put, the movie says too little. The mash-up feel works well for some story elements, like the fatherhood and manhood themes between Ernest and Jerome. For other parts, however, like the bland homewrecker romance angle between Flem and Mary, this genre combination tonally mismatches other narrative tangents and hampers momentum and overall merit. The spurts of action that open and fill small gaps in between angst and melodrama don't save "Young Ones."
LESSON #1: PRAY FOR RAIN-- The old farmer's hope and prayer for life-giving rain to benefit their crops gets played as an interesting attitudinal stance for the characters of this story. In this world, the phrase is either a "godspeed" affirmation or "whatever" line of dismissal. Its use is very telling towards the degree of optimism or pessimism present in the characters' motivations. Those who believe or do not believe in that statement separate into the proverbial "white hats" or "black hats" of the western variety.
LESSON #2: A MAN IS ONLY AS GOOD AS HIS PRINCIPLES-- The second and third lessons work very closely together and examine the three chapter-leading men of "Young Ones." Let's start with principles. Each of the three main men occupy this world with a distinct set of principles, morals, and values that they live or die by. They are the core beliefs that fuel the conflict. Watch to see what they are and how they turn out for each man.
LESSON #3: ASSERTING YOURSELF AS A MAN-- Each man's principles go on to dictate their actions. Each of the three central men are trying to assert themselves in different ways based on those morals and values from Lesson #2. Ernest is a flawed man trying to do the right thing for his family despite constant failure. Flem is looking to get a leg up and cut corners. Finally, young Jerome gets the coming-of-age of deciding what kind of man he's going to be.