By Steve Greene | Indiewire January 20, 2014 at 11:51AM
The world of Jake Paltrow’s “Young Ones” is a barren landscape where the value of water is as good as currency and attracts a cult-like aura to those who can procure it. We’re given no particular details about what created this environment or what timeframe it’s supposed to inhabit, but the film’s opening standoff between a pair of desert bandits and the man from whom they’re attempting to steal some precious resources establishes that this an area rife with danger.
That individual fighting for his livelihood is Michael Shannon’s Ernest, the patriarch of the Holm family, an outcast who works the region’s supply routes. His son Jerome (Kodi Smit McPhee) is growing distant, his daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) is becoming increasingly rebellious and the trio live together in a makeshift shipping crate shack on the outskirts of the desert region.
The object of Mary’s affection is local motorcycle-driving bad boy Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), who has his eyes set on whisking away the only surviving woman in the Holm family and, Ernest suspects, the family’s land in the process. As Ernest struggles to keep his family intact and his tragic alcoholic past at bay, Flem becomes an ever-growing threat to the area’s dwindling sense of order.
As Paltrow unspools his tale, there are multiple indications that the story is being told on lean, unsure footing. There’s a recurring tendency towards obvious, explanatory dialogue, especially when used to punctuate pivotal moments. A handful of exchanges lend themselves to a melodrama that doesn’t mesh with the grit and grime of its surroundings.
The film's youngest characters might be the points where the film most shows its strain. Whatever fate befell this dystopia put significant pressure on its later generation to assume the some of the roles of their elders. Most of the teenage and young adult ensemble members are continuously called to adopt the demeanor and mannerisms of individuals two decades their senior. The results are often jarring and empty.
The one significant exception is Hoult, who adeptly carries and elevates the story when, through a set of circumstances, the focus shifts to Flem. Hoult handles that resultant narrative weight, moving skillfully between a predatory menace and adoring partner to Mary. Paltrow’s script calls for Flem to be ruthless, and he does so whenever he’s part of the unfolding drama. Fanning (and to a lesser extent McPhee) aren’t afforded the same opportunity at depth of character when given their chance to add to the overall tale. Mary is reduced to a worklist of household chores and although Fanning does her best to overcompensate, one of the most important pieces of the film’s timeline feels flimsy as a result.
As the saga twists along, it unfortunately falls into the structural trap that beset Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Even though the connective thematic tissue is there, the third act (or, as on-screen graphics inform us, “Chapter 3”) can’t replace what time and circumstances have removed from the story.
While the world it attempts to establish has some murky overarching guidelines, the details and specifics are an impressive asset. The auction-bought mechanical mule that helps Ernest and his family transport supplies across the mountainous regions of the desert seems innovative from our perspective, but still has the feel of outdated technology. Early on, during a moment when Ernest fills up at a fueling station, Paltrow cleverly demonstrates water’s market price.
Not as much concerned with the specifics of what created this bleak landscape (filmed on location in South Africa), “Young Ones” is a post-apocalyptic movie where the biggest featured destruction is the dissolution of a family. The way it reaches to find the humanity in a place devoid of hope shows admirable attempt at a singular vision. But Paltrow overestimates the timeless nature of the story. Nathan Johnson’s stirring, sweeping, string-laden score is the ideal soundtrack for the epic tale the film strives to be, but ultimately falls short of.
Criticwire Grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Even though its tone couldn’t be farther from something like “Firefly,” the clash of genres and setting should be a big enough hook to grab an audience. If fans of this summer’s “X-Men” film are looking for a film that gives Hoult a chance to sink into a meatier role, this won’t disappoint.