Water has run dry, robots carry the workload, and children grow up far too quickly in the desolate future of Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones.
This gripping familial drama follows three men at different stages in their life as they navigate a haunting, dangerous world where the scarcity of water has forced the creation of a unique environment. It is part Wild West, part post-apocalyptic future, and all parts arid and hot. It’s so effectively atmospheric, in fact, that you feel like a drink of water or a shower as you watch.
The patriarch of our central family is Ernest Holm, played magnificently (as per usual) by Michael Shannon. He is a protector of his two children (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elle Fanning), imposing and determined, making a living working supply routes and tending desperately to his farm land. Ernest doesn’t hesitate to do away with two apparent water thieves as the film begins, a sign of what he and just about everyone else is capable of here.
What we quickly learn is that this empty expanse, punctuated by cliffs and small, make-shift residences is run by a tenuous balance of bravado and respect. Tension rises quickly and stays at a high level throughout, as the immediate problem for father Holm is saving and procuring enough water until a potentially life-saving reservoir is tapped.
Among this world of untrustworthy characters is the fantastically-named Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), a young man smitten with Ernest’s daughter Mary who simultaneously is ready to do whatever need be to survive on his own in the harsh elements. His father, who like everyone else says hello while pointing a gun, is auctioneer and one of many middle-aged male figures who seem able at any moment to attack.
That we immediately understand the desperation of this world is important, and Shannon’s innate charm and his paternal qualities make us instantly sympathetic.
So Ernest is the focus of the first part of this connected, consecutive triptych of stories. Flem is at the center of the second, while the third finds Ernest’s teenage son Jerome thrust into a position of responsibility and courage. This structure is less about a definitive division of time or space, as all three stories are ostensibly about the same characters and plot. Instead, the chapters simply foreshadow important decisions made by these men. They will be forced to make choices that will forever affect themselves and those around them, but such is what is called for.
That’s because gone is any innocence. A troubling and tragic existence sees no time leisure or comforts. Mary is resigned to staying in the house; few women venture out on their own. Ernest has set up a “patio” outside his industrial-like home that consists of what looks like three seats from a bus that rest atop the eroding ground. Elsewhere, a young man and his girlfriend contemplate selling their newborn in order to earn money for water and sustenance.
It’s a haunting vision of the possible world that is presented organically; even the introduction of robots seems practical, as a mechanized mule of sorts is used in place of the real thing to carry supplies from place to place. A curious aside finds the Holm family visiting the matriarch in what is some sort of hospital; she has been in a traumatic accident and undergoing spinal therapy with the help of advanced technology.
Even before we meet the last entrant into the family Holm, we’re already invested in their plight. Paltrow, who also writes the screenplay, effectively creates both a grand scale and an intimate setting. The Holm family is the focus, and indeed, there are only a handful of other characters that they encounter during the film, but the anxiety in the desert world is palpable.
It’s curious to title the film Young Ones, especially since Shannon is the first and foremost focus. We don’t get too close to him, though. He is gruff, physically intimidating and would be scary if he weren’t your father (he’s probably a little scary too if he’s your father). Conversely, Jerome, and to a lesser extent Mary, is watchful and cautious, and more emotionally available.
Paltrow enjoys holding the camera on the faces of the three younger characters, slowly, strangely zooming in at times of dramatic, emotional revelation. Even a short scene where Jerome meets a young smuggler is effective at conveying youthful optimism blended with realistic despair. And again, Paltrow stays trained on their faces.
Those intimate shots, paired with vast panoramas of barren wasteland make Young Ones a haunting visual experience. And the performances by Shannon and a talented cast of young actors push this film towards greatness: tragic greatness.
Young Ones offers a powerful and haunting vision of the future, placing the viewer in the tense situation of the central family trying to survive in a harsh, unpredictable and violent world.