Action Drama

A Film Review for the Post-Apocalypse: Young Ones

October 31, 2014Ben MK

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The good, the bad and the thirsty...

In Kevin Costner's Waterworld, the last remnants of the human race battled one another and fought to stave off extinction in a world beset by an excess of water. In Young Ones, it struggles to cope with a lack of it. Writer/director Jake Paltrow's ambitious second feature film is, in a way, a tricky one to pigeonhole, marrying elements from a host of disparate genres — the western, Greek tragedy and post-apocalyptic sci-fi — to paint a picture of a dystopian near-future where humanity's hope may have all but run dry, but one family's will to survive hasn't.


Once upon a time, the term "post-apocalyptic sci-fi" conjured up images of rampaging bands of marauders, wreaking havoc across a savage, barren wasteland while racking up a gruesome body count along the way. But alas, Mad Max: Water Wars this is not. On the contrary, Paltrow (younger sibling to Gwyneth) is more concerned with depicting the hopelessness — as well as the hopefulness — in the everyday lives of survivors. Think The Walking Dead, only without the zombies.

The setting is intentionally ambiguous. The story drops viewers somewhere in the continental U.S. — where, as we quickly learn, the land has been devastated by a persistent drought that has turned states, towns and neighbors against one another — and focuses on the tribulations of the Holm family: its weary patriarch, Ernest (Michael Shannon); his paraplegic wife, Katherine (Aimee Mullins); their 14-year-old son, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee); and his older sister, the rebellious Mary (Elle Fanning).

The absence of rain has long since robbed the farmland surrounding their family home of its ability to sustain crops, but Ernest believes it still bears the seeds of potential. Hence, while others have moved on, he remains, staunchly defending the arid property from hapless, would-be bandits, in the hopes that if and when the waters do return, the fields will once again grow green.

In the meantime, Ernest gets by working the supply routes, distributing alcohol and other necessities of life to the men toiling out in the desert to complete a vital pipeline that will bring much-needed H20 to the area's parched lips. And though the pay isn't sufficient to help him keep up with the mortgage payments — the bank foreclosed on his farm long ago, but they neglected to evict him, on account of the land essentially being deemed worthless — it at least affords him ample opportunity to try and convince the crew's foreman to divert some of the water his way.

Enter Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), Mary's ne'er-do-well boyfriend, whose father, Sam (David Butler), also happens to be the previous owner of Ernest's farm. Whether Sam willfully sold Ernest the property or that it was taken away from him is unclear. What is plainly obvious, however, is that Flem harbors a deep resentment towards the elder Holm for continuing to illegally occupy the land. And, as such, he hatches a grim plan to reclaim what he perceives as rightfully his.

With these motivations in mind, Paltrow sets about telling a story of greed, murder and revenge, unfolding in distinctly marked chapters, each bearing the name of one of its three main male characters. And it's all set against the stark, yet visually resplendent, backdrop of a futuristic Wild West — one replete with visions of cargo-ferrying drones, autonomous robotic mules and mechanically-enhanced bodysuits.

Clearly, Paltrow has a keen eye for this sort of visual storytelling, as the film very much lives up to the aesthetic promise of its teaser poster — featuring the silhouettes of a lone human figure and his robotic companion, drawn against an unforgiving and harsh-looking terrain — which evokes the intriguing notion of Star Wars' planet Tatooine, as shot through the lens of Ken Burns. The narrative, on the other hand, fails to live up to the same lofty expectations. For even at a brisk but respectable 100 minutes, it spreads itself noticeably thin, with a tendency to veer off into unresolved tangents at a moment's notice. As a result, moviegoers with more of an appetite for action and thrills will often find their patience tested.

Still, the film's remarkably talented principal cast manages a decent job at warding off audience boredom as best they can, with Shannon bringing an instant gravitas to his role (which you suspect he may be able to do in his sleep); Smit-McPhee believable as a boy who must learn to become a man by taking matters into his own hands; and Hoult imbuing his villainous part with a suitable degree of emotional depth. The only disappointment is Fanning, who, through no fault of her own, has been handed the film's most superfluous role. The fact that Mary's function in the movie is solely to elicit emotional responses from the other characters is a crying shame, because we know the actress to be capable of so much more.

The Bottom Line Rich in its visual composition and bolstered by a stellar cast, Young Ones might have been a new classic in the landscape of post-apocalyptic sci-fi cinema. However, this ambitious piece of genre-bending filmmaking suffers from a terse narrative that struggles to keep viewers fully invested for the entirety of the story. As it stands, writer/director Jake Paltrow's sophomore film is still a worthwhile curiosity to seek out, especially for moviegoers interested in a more grounded take on this oft-revisited type of story. Just don't expect it to quench your thirst completely.  Ben Mk

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