Director: Jake Paltrow
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Elle Fanning, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Shannon
RunTime: 1 hr 40 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 8 January 2015
Synopsis: YOUNG ONES is set in a near future when water has become the most precious and dwindling resource on the planet, one that dictates everything from the macro of political policy to the detailed micro of interpersonal family and romantic relationships. The land has withered into something wretched. The dust has settled on a lonely, barren planet. The hardened survivors of the loss of Earth's precious resources scrape and struggle. Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) lives on this harsh frontier with his children, Jerome (Kodi Smit McPhee)and Mary (Elle Fanning). He defends his farm from bandits, works the supply routes, and hopes to rejuvenate the soil. But Mary's boyfriend, Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), has grander designs. He wants Ernest's land for himself, and will go to any length to get it.
A mix of post-apocalyptic science-fiction, stripped down Western and Greek tragedy makes writer/ director Jake Paltrow’s (he’s the younger brother of Gwyneth) sophomore feature an interesting genre experiment but nothing more. Set in some unspecified time in the future when water is scarce and the land has been decimated by droughts, it follows a group of characters whose fates become intertwined with each other in increasingly melodramatic fashion – Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon), his daughter Mary (Elle Fanning), his teenage son Jerome (Kodi-Smit McPhee) and Mary’s boyfriend Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult).
Narratively, Paltrow divides his film into three distinct acts named after each one of the primary male characters. The first kicks off with Ernest, a former alcoholic whose reckless driving left his wife a hospitalized paraplegic, and who now spends his days selling bottles of liquor to the men who work the supply lines that deliver water. Besides establishing Ernest as a hardworking man who tries his best to make ends meet for his family, it also sets in place their family dynamics – while Jerome is in thrall of his father and follows him around all the time, Mary resents her father for the accident that made her mother a cripple. In between the deliberately paced scenes, Ernest acquires a robotic mule called the Simulit Shadow, a curiously designed device that becomes crucial to the storytelling later on.
We’ll let on a mild spoiler for discussing the rest of the plot – Ernest dies at the end of the first chapter. With his passing, Flem moves into the Holm family home (verbal pun not intended), and proves himself to be quite the manipulator, blackmailing who is necessary in order to get the supply lines to irrigate the barren fields and restore agriculture to the land. The third and final act shifts the focus to Jerome, who towards the end of the second act begins to wonder why Flem lied about the whereabouts of their Simulit Shadow and suspects that he might somehow be involved in the disappearance of a fellow family friend Robbie (Christy Pankhurst) and his infant son and worse in the death of his father.
While one may be tempted to read deeper about Paltrow’s intentions for casting this family drama (not unlike this summer’s ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’) against a dystopian setting, the fact remains, however unique the blend may be, that the characters and consequent narrative are largely under-developed. Amidst the three male characters, Ernest is the most fully-formed of them, labouring to be the father figure to two teenage children in largely honourable fashion – no matter that he has barely enough, he asks Jerome to give what they have to Robbie and wife Sooz when he spots them begging under the shade of a huge billboard along the dusty highway. In contrast, there is hardly depth nor motivation to Flem’s character; and the same goes for Jerome, whose final transformation into his family’s keeper hardly bears any resonance.
Yes, Paltrow’s intention to explore themes of family, vengeance and fate is noble, but his method strains to catch up with his ambition. Certain scenes betray his amateurish tendencies, bleeding into each other and fading out slowly for no apparent reason. Some good ideas, like a back brace which Ernest’s wife wears that is attached to overhead lines like that of a tram or gas stations that pump water, are never developed fully and remain the occasional bright spark in an otherwise dully filmed and drearily paced film. The cast make the best out of their respective roles, but are ultimately undermined by the one-dimensional nature of their characters.
And so, while the blend of genres and stylistic touches may be interesting to watch, the film on a whole ends up as a hodgepodge of good ideas with bad execution. Key to Paltrow’s dystopian-set family drama is a character-driven narrative, but sadly that is precisely what is missing here no matter what the character-based three-act setup may imply. At least the picture looks pretty though, benefitting from Giles Nuttgens’ widescreen lensing to evoke a George Miller ‘Mad-Max’ feel to the barren wasteland that the characters inhabit.
(An intriguing conceptual blend of science fiction, western and Greek tragedy family drama that is undermined by weak characterisation and amateurish execution)
Review by Gabriel Chong