“Pray for rain.”
That's a common refrain in the world of Young Ones – a world where water is scarce and despair is plentiful. It's a world so arid that you start to get thirsty just looking at its vast, empty landscapes, and a world in which many people find themselves renegotiating society's long-established rules. Writer/director Jake Paltrow (brother of Gwyneth) uses this setting as the backdrop for a tale about family, greed, regret, blame and revenge. The story unfolds at a slow pace – slower than many audience members will tolerate – but stick with it and you'll find a rewarding sci-fi western that plays like a centuries-old tragedy (part Greek, part Shakespearean).
Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter) makes a living in this challenging world by delivering supplies to local “water men” - government-contracted workers tasked with irrigating the precious little water that exists to the appropriate areas. Ernest has been trying in vain to convince the men to channel a little of the water to his land. He's convinced that with just a little moisture, he can transform his dusty plantation into lush, green farmland. Meanwhile, he's doing the best he can to take care of his crippled wife Katherine (Aimee Mullins, Rob the Mob) and their teenage children Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road) and Mary (Elle Fanning, Super 8).
Ernest is a tough but diplomatic man, and does his best to get along with anyone who isn't trying to rob him. Nonetheless, he finds himself embroiled in conflict with a young man named Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men: Days of Future Past), who nurses feelings for Mary and holds a business-related grudge against Ernest. Every time the two men cross paths, the tension between them grows. Both would prefer some sort of respectful alliance, but neither is willing to compromise enough to reach that goal.
Shannon is one of the best actors of his generation, and he's dependably sturdy as the taciturn patriarch of the Holm clan. Even so, the film's title correctly implies that Ernest isn't the central figure. Flem, Jerome and Mary are required to battle the elements like everyone else, but they're also required to battle their own lack of life experience and their volatile emotions. Flem is technically the villain of this tale, but he's not the sort of cold-hearted bad guy we expect in stories like this. You see the guilt in his eyes when he reflects on the bad things he's done, and the uncertainty that washes across his face when he finds himself at a moral crossroads. Hoult has grown into a remarkably interesting screen presence as he's reached adulthood, and here turns in one of his most complex performances. The same can be said of Smit-McPhee, who delivers one of the film's strongest scenes simply by silently reacting to a series of images. Fanning does good work, too, but her character isn't nearly as well-developed (the film generally seems uncertain of what to do with its female characters).
Paltrow employs a number of surprising stylistic flourishes, some of which work better than others. I liked the sudden appearances of chapter titles at various points throughout the film, and was intrigued by the way the director litters the soundtrack with wistful country music (Faron Young's “Hello Walls” appears during one memorable scene). However, I'm less enthusiastic about the way Paltrow occasionally permits brief bursts of melodrama (such as a brief scene in which Fanning starts screaming at Shannon and calling him a failure), as these moments tend to disrupt the film's otherwise well-balanced (and understated) tone. The cinematography and editing tends to be a little showoff-y – it wants to remind you of the film's cinematic influences (a little John Ford here, a little Mad Max there) – but I rarely found this too distracting. Paltrow wants many of the images he presents to feel iconic, and sometimes they actually do.
Young Ones has been largely dismissed by critics, and I think a part of it has to do with the fact that it sounds like a much different movie on paper than it is in reality. A post-apocalyptic sci-fi western starring Michael Shannon? Sounds badass, right? The thing is, Paltrow isn't particularly interested in making a “badass” movie. He's made a quiet, thought-provoking art film filled with subtle, interior performances. It's gripping during its best moments, but you have to be willing to meet it halfway – to watch carefully, look into the eyes of these people and empathize with them. There are moments of violence, but they're intimate, uncomfortable and designed for the purpose of revealing more about the characters. There are many virtues here, but seeing all of them requires patience.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 2014