A hodgepodge of Western, sci-fi and Greek tragedy, “Young Ones” is certainly one of the more unique films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But the sophomore effort from Jake Paltrow (“The Good Night”) gets so bogged down in its primal tale of murder and revenge that the most intriguing elements become little more than futuristic window dressing. Unfolding in three distinct chapters, each featuring a different protagonist, the visually rich and dramatically spare pic plays a bit like a cinematic graphic novel. A cult following could be in the offing, but commercial prospects otherwise appear limited.
Set in an unspecified area of the United States (though shot in South Africa) where water has become a precious commodity, “Young Ones” has the vibe of a post-apocalyptic drama but can’t technically be classified as such. The world is still functional; the film simply focuses on a group of characters who made the choice to rough it out in an inhospitable environment. Each chapter is named after its leading man (women are mostly in the background here, natch), beginning with Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon). Old enough to remember the days when the dry land he lives on was green and lush, Holm now ferociously patrols a desert wasteland.
He shares his home with a rebellious daughter, Mary (Elle Fanning), and admiring son, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and pays regular visits to his sickly wife (Aimee Mullins) in a nearby hospital. The opening sequence efficiently establishes Holm’s tough-guy credentials as he violently stops a pair of wandering crooks from breaking into his house. These shootings are just the first in a string of sudden bursts of violence that disrupt the otherwise poky narrative.
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Holm makes his living delivering supplies to desert camps, although the details of this setup are kept vague. One day during a routine run, his donkey breaks a leg and has to be put down; Holm takes Jerome out to look for a replacement, and the pair settle on a worker bot called a Simulit Shadow. Holm outbids arrogant whippersnapper Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), a wealthy businessman’s son who also happens to be romancing Mary in secret. The conflict between Holm and Flem escalates until a pivotal incident shifts the focus onto Flem for his side of the story. Jerome, who has mostly been on the sidelines, carries the third chapter, in which the boy becomes a man.
Heavily indebted to tropes of Old West fiction and the creative spirit of ’70s sci-fi, “Young Ones” nevertheless remains admirably earnest about carving its own path. That’s especially apparent in the steady stream of gadgets and technological innovations that pop up throughout the film. Though we get no details of her illness, Mrs. Holm is hooked up to some kind of mobile back brace that transforms her into a robo-angel. Digital video is displayed on a piece of parchment paper, and a trip to the big city reveals an entire world of wonders. The standout, however, is the Simulit Shadow, which doesn’t speak or do anything it’s not programmed to do, but still becomes as important as a family pet to Jerome.
Unfortunately, Paltrow struggles to sustain the same level of interest when it comes to the film’s plot and characters, the talented actors left floundering in thinly drawn roles that strive for an iconic status always just out of reach. Shannon makes a convincing tough guy, Hoult a shifty schemer and Smit-McPhee a resourceful kid, but none of them is asked to do anything beyond that. Fanning is simply wasted in the most significant femme role.
As much as the narrative drags, the pic always looks great thanks to Giles Nuttgens’ stylish lensing. From the arid landscapes to the tightest closeups in a classic standoff, the d.p. makes up for his previous sins against the sci-fi genre on the notorious dud “Battlefield Earth.” Production designer Sharon Lomofsky, visual effects supervisor Ditch Doy and the apparently very busy Clinton Aiden Smith — who pulled triple duty as prosthetics designer, puppet designer and makeup effects designer — also deserve credit for bringing the film’s combination of the future and the past to life.