Young Ones is all over the place, and not in a particularly good way. There’s far too many ideas crammed into the plot to allow any of them staying power, leaving the film in a muddled ball of awkward dialogue and half-finished concepts. This mash-up of dystopian western/sci-fi feels less like a piece of divine inspiration and more like a movie that never knows quite what it wants to be.
The plot revolves around the Holms family, who live in the back-end of mid-western nowhere in a near-future America where water has become a precious resource due to widespread drought. Michael Shannon plays Ernest, a former alcoholic-turned Samaritan living in the continued hope that the rain will come. He spends much of his time running supplies and alcohol with his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to a group of well-diggers, leaving his daughter (Elle Fanning) to philander with Nicholas Hoult’s ambitious but morally questionable Flem.
The most interesting aspects of the film lie in the realization of the dystopia that it depicts, and for the first half hour or so we are treated to a genuinely impressive attempt at world building. It’s quite believable, too, with lumbering robot trolleys in the backs of rust-bucket pickup trucks suggesting that this is a place where the people are too poor or too scared to completely embrace the future. This is the kind of New Age that both reflects and holds on to the old, with men and woman still pilloried into their stereotypical gender roles and an ever-present air of violence.
As an allegory for the death of the Old West, it’s thoroughly interesting, but the film’s engaging first act is cut short by an abrupt jump to a significantly less interesting tale of murder and revenge. It’s at this point where Young Ones really goes off the rails, descending into a confused mix of domestic drama and a parable on the cyclical nature of revenge. The dialogue is too awkwardly written to pull such a change off and where the film’s opening throes make up for these exchanges with an engaging vision of dystopia, Young Ones’ retreat to domesticity and relative normalism proves to be its downfall.
The fact that Shannon, a genuinely brilliant actor capable of making even the hokiest dialogue acceptable, plays a peripheral role in the second half of the film only handicaps the weak script even further. The rest of the performances are a mixed bag. Hoult is actually quite good as the sneaky and subversive Fleming while Fanning sees her considerable talents wasted on a character who appears to never leave the house. Smit-McPhee has never really convinced me as anything more than a one-note actor, and delivers a bland performance here in a role that should be the film’s emotional center.
That lack of emotional involvement is crucial, and with the most sympathetic and interesting character sidelined in its first 40 minutes, the build to the third act’s crescendo ends up ringing hollow. This kind of film is meant to shock and dazzle, but frankly, I was left feeling pretty bored for much of its runtime. You can only see so many dust-covered vistas before you’re left wanting for something a little more substantial.
Young Ones feels like an opportunity wasted, with a genuinely unique take on the classic Western thrown away for the sake of something far more dull. It’s competently made, but the more it wore on the less interested I became (it feels a good deal longer than its supposed 100 minute length). As much as I wanted to enjoy it, Young Ones‘ over-stretched plot and stunted script leaves it feeling like an art-house short that was given too much money.
Young Ones is all over the place, reducing an interesting premise to a muddled ball of awkward dialogue and half-finished ideas.