(Image courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival) 

51st Chicago International Film Festival Main Competition special presentation


Directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, “Youth” is a cornucopia of quirk colliding with decadence.  We get to see how the other half lives through messy characters making sense of their lives while soaking in a lavish vacation.  Thanks to a stellar cast and brilliant performances, “Youth” surprises us to show how much interest and intrigue can be found in foppish people we normally wouldn’t closely identify with as an audience.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel play a pair of lifelong best friends.  Caine is Fred Ballinger, a retired famous British composer, a Stravinksy pupil, who carries the “Maestro” nickname.  Keitel is Mick Boyle, an aged and semi-successful filmmaker.  The two are sharing a holiday at the Hotel Schatzalp of Davos, Switzerland.  The place is a vast, high-end, full-service retreat nestled in the picturesque Swiss Alps.  The beautiful locale speaks for itself to give “Youth” its atmosphere.  The hotel is populated by a wide array of hotel staff members and eclectic guests, from fellow artists, celebrities, athletes, models, and other nameless members of the rich and famous. 

Fred is avoiding an invitation from Queen Elizabeth for a concert to celebrate the birthday of Prince Philip which would lead to knighthood, much to the chagrin of the royal emissary (Alex Macqueen).  He declines to conduct and perform for privately personal reasons.  Fred’s daughter and assistant Lena (Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz) has joined him at the retreat.  They tenuously rehash his absentee parenting, their different relationships with his wife and her mother, and the fact that Lena’s husband, Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard), has left her for pop star Paloma Faith (playing herself).

On his end, Mick is in the process of finishing a new screenplay with a snarky and petulant team of writers (played by Tom Lipinski, Chloe Perrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern, and Mark Gessner).  They are hung up on an ending and the stress is adding up.  The project, a testament he calls “Life’s Last Day,” has a feeling of a reaching effort for Mick to stay relevant in the business and is slated to star his long-time muse Brenda Morel (Academy Award winner Jane Fonda). 

Fred and Mick go about their days people-watching, intersecting others, sharing their musings, and coming to grips with the current predicaments of their lives.  Chief among their conversations are casual chats with the reclusive Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who is getting away to research a difficult new role.  All of these moving people and parts interact within the hotel setting in an assortment of practical and fantastical encounters that brim with both comedy and drama.

Paolo Sorrentino, known for 2013’s “The Great Beauty,” has crafted rich and unique characters that leap off the screenplay.  The ensemble shines with moment after moment for the many diverse participants.  Michael Caine is, as always, a guiding presence of flawed genius and decency and Harvey Keitel makes for an amusing foil of rascal-like brevity next to him.  Rachel Weisz pushes the dramatic peaks and the revelation of Paul Dano’s real role are each two of many invested payoffs in the film.  The biggest is Jane Fonda coming in for a single scene to drop bombshell rant on Keitel that changes the trajectory of the film’s third act.  It’s the kind of single big scene that gets Oscar nominations.

“Youth” is a classic actor’s showcase that builds heavy ideas on showy performances.   Through Caine and Keitel, we see what passions and complications drive them and what regrets and mistakes haunt their hearts and legacies.  It is a challenging film that can be rattling at one moment and voyeuristicly distant the next.  Sorrentino’s film requires patience to soak up the beautiful qualities in it worth appreciating, making it not a mainstream film for everyone.  A competitor for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, “Youth” has made its mark and will be a fixture in awards seasons conversations.

LESSON #1: FINDING LEVITY IN ALL STAGES OF LIFE—There is clever humor to be found in “Youth” watching characters find levity in their imperfect lives and circumstances.  The tricky part is that levity comes with a frivolity that can sometimes forget the proper respect for those circumstances.

LESSON #2: THE REFLECTIVE MUSING THAT COMES WITH AGE—The backbone of this film is the active contemplation happening within these characters when they are awarded a moment of vacation to collect their thoughts.  The musings that come out of it can range from stirring to depressing, but it is a process all of us, young and old, do differently at different stages of our lives.

LESSON #3: THE TREMENDOUS EFFORT FOR MODEST RESULTS— For many of the players in “Youth,” this lesson’s statement is the conclusion that comes from the musing from Lesson #2.  No matter the role, be it parent, child, spouse, lover, friend, artist, or professional, we see that, so often, the multitude of energy and vigor we exert in our lives returns back as small victories outnumbered by failures or moments we or others won’t remember.  There is a measure where each of us have to come to grips with that aspect of mortality.