Young Ones is an amalgam of several genres, imitating them without much reverence. Writer and director Jake Paltrow awkwardly combines the simplest tropes of science-fiction and western, seemingly with little attention or research about why they’re effective, and so they mix together like oil and water. His film looks great, with plenty of sun-scorched landscapes and strange special effects, yet he relies on cheesy flourishes to the point they become a distraction. His heavy-handed style continues into his plot, which favors melodrama and allegory, minus all the implied thematic heft. Indulgent and overwrought, his film masquerades as pulp.
Water is a scarce resource in the not-too-distant future, so a farmer named Ernest (Michael Shannon) guards his well with lethal force. Most everyone gave up on the land, favoring the overcrowded city, yet Ernest firmly believes it’s a matter of time before the rain returns (characters repeat “Pray for rain” as if saying “Good luck”). Ernest has a good relationship with his son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), while his daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) thinks he’s forsaken them all. After Ernest’s donkey dies, he goes to an auction for a robotic replacement, outbidding the young Flem (Nicholas Hoult). Ambitious and hotheaded, Flem inserts himself into Ernest’s family and the results are disastrous.
Rather than weave elements of science-fiction and westerns, Paltrow takes the simplest western plot and adds futuristic technology. The most obvious example is the donkey, which looks like a cross between MIT’s “cheetah” robot and a lawnmower. The robot is not imaginative in any way; the characters treat it exactly like cattle, even when it’s abused. When the robot does finally matter, it’s so shamelessly instrumental to the plot, it’s as if Paltrow took a western script and played sci-fi “Mad Libs” with it. There are some intriguing, unexplained aspects of this universe: Jerome’s mother is a cyborg who is stuck in an insane asylum (or something), and there’s a throwaway special effect where iPads seemingly exist on paper. Still, this kind of uninspired world-building is the sort of thing I’d aspect from an amateur, not a seasoned TV director who manages to assemble a solid cast.
Without much imagination, the acting is the best thing about Young Ones. When he’s not playing someone who is completely insane, Michael Shannon is terrific as a flawed patriarch, and here he hones down his persona so he’s more likable than his earlier, more deranged characters. There are even moments of levity where he jokes around with Jerome. Speaking of Smit-McPhee, this is third post-apocalyptic film after The Road and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, two superior films that focus on character and big ideas in a way that Young Ones does not. The only real surprise here is Hoult, who has been stuck in child actor mode for too long. As Flem, a scoundrel who has his reasons for betrayal, Hoult transitions into dark character roles, the sort of stuff Brad Pitt would do before he became a superstar. While Young Ones does not live up to Hoult’s performance, it’s always exciting to see the start of a new phase in an actor’s career.
The strangest, most annoying thing about Young Ones is Paltrow’s shameless embrace of pretense. The film is divided into three “chapters,” each one named for the three most important characters, yet they add little gravitas or explanation into what happens. The requisite betrayals are easy to spot based on the economy of characters, but Paltrow handles the twists like he reinvented the genres from which he steals (without much creativity, I might add). Several characters from the same specific, painful injury, and there are two protracted flashback sequences that are so heavy-handed Paltrow implicitly insults his audience’s intelligence. If you can make it beyond the unintentionally funny musical cues and flashes of predictable violence, there are a couple decent performances in Young Ones. Most of us cannot, fortunately enough, so the only value of this film is how it raises the bar on older, similar films from “mediocre” to “pretty good, come to think of it.”