Jake Paltrow’s ‘Young Ones’ is a gorgeously visualized movie that toys with Western and post-apocalyptic thriller conventions in intriguing ways. Unfortunately, beyond the style and setup, the film is sadly hollow. Even if it’s enjoyable to watch in the moment, it simply doesn’t hold together once given much thought. The appeal of the film will come down entirely to your feelings about style vs. substance.
‘Young Ones’ takes place in an unspecified future in which America has been hit by a devastating drought. It’s what the great Moe Szyslak once described as “Mad Max times” only not quite as dire. There are still some successful communities and even fancypants sci-fi technology. Essentially, it’s a Western with robotics, and into that stylized world walks the imposing frame and creepy sunken eyes of Michael Shannon. He plays a struggling father desperately trying to hold his family together in harsh times. He attempts to cut a deal to irrigate his land, convinced that it will thrive again. He has has a dorky teen son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who he’s attempting to raise into a proper Western man and a daughter (Elle Fanning) who he is desperately trying to keep away from destructive influences. The big bad influence is Nicholas Hoult, who wants to get with Fanning and is willing to do anything it takes to make that happen.
The film is divided into three chapters, centered on three different protagonists. Shannon is the star of the first and best segment. That’s not particularly surprising given that he’s Michael Shannon, one of the most consistently compelling and commanding screen presences kicking around these days. When he’s carrying this retro-Western, future-world movie, it works. Shannon’s able to add some rugged character actor presence and pained humanity that’s as important to the success of this type of film as any vista or visual.
Unfortunately, when Smit-McPhee or Hoult take center stage in the downer revenge story, things don’t work nearly as well. It’s not that either of them is a particularly bad actor, more that the puffy-faced youngsters don’t quite suit their burned-out roles. As for Fanning, if you thought that the extremely talented young actress might bring some life to the proceedings, don’t. Her character is there only to be possessed, fawned over, or impregnated by one of the male leads. She has no personality or purpose beyond her relationship to the men.
That’s a signal for the other major problem with ‘Young Ones’: Paltrow’s screenplay. It starts well, then quickly devolves into a revenge tale as old as time, presenting moral quandaries, tough guy posturing and surface-level human insights that have been part of both the Western and post-apocalyptic genres since their inceptions. Paltrow’s movie opens with incredible promise, revealing a beautifully realized world and an intriguing segment centered on Michael Shannon before devolving into something stale and placid.
The visuals never dissipate, though. Using scant resources, clever designs and remarkable landscapes, Paltrow creates a vivid fantasy community and presents it through an effective and affecting combination of lush cinematography and heightened editing techniques. As a work of pure craft, the film is an undeniable success for the director. Undoubtedly, many viewers will get so lost in his beautifully stylized movie that they won’t notice the lazy script or half-baked characters. Those viewers have a point. A production this well-realized can’t be described as a total failure, even if its script is far from a success. Approach with caution.