Young Ones is a superb showcase of Jake Paltrow’s visual and world building skills, but misses hard on the character and story as he overstuffs and rushes his film.
Set in a future where water is in short supply and the world’s technology has advanced along an impressive path. People scrape by on the outskirts of civilization, as they pray for the rain to come again so they can grow crops again. When a family, the Holm’s, begin to make one last push for water to be pumped to their land, a third party shakes things up all across the family.
Straight from the get go, Young Ones is an impressive visual feast and gets off on the right foot for the first twenty minutes or so. The film works so well because Paltrow is slowly peeling back the layers of the world, but once the drama starts to unfold the film slowly loses its footing. Paltrow somehow introduces a ton of material, but is unable to build up any of his characters to a point that we care about them. Everyone’s decisions are driven by fleeting plot points, and while some of these moments could be powerful scenes, nothing resonates because we don’t really care/know the characters.
The film is broken up into three chapters, following each of the three men that have to lead the Holm’s family, and while it is certainly sexist that Elle Fanning doesn’t get her own chapter, the film lives and dies on the shoulders of the actor’s in the chapters’ titular roles. Michael Shannon is great in the opening chapter, which is easily the strongest of the group. Shannon has the swagger and intensity we love from him, but he also sells us on all the predicaments he runs into with his family, land and what he has to do so they can survive. Chapter two follows Nicholas Hoult, and while he does a fine job the story doesn’t stop to let us deal with his issues and emotions. Hoult’s Flem is thrown into quite the precarious situation, but instead of digging into that Paltrow decides to rush through a bunch of plot points; then Flem’s story abruptly ends. Kodi Smit-McPhee anchors the third and final chapter and unfortunately sinks the film with it. Smit-McPhee is pretty terrible in Young Ones. When he is playing the younger, more innocent side of Jerome he is solid, but his solo chapter asks him to get gritty/serious and he is laughably bad at times. I haven’t seen a poor performance effect my opinion of film like Smit-McPhee’s did in sometime, but all of the emotional resolution in the film hinges on his mostly wordless performance and I didn’t buy it for a minute. It gets so rough I am actively dreading whatever he might pop up in next. It’s a shame. I do appreciate Paltrow’s attempt to make the Sim robot a character of its own, but it too gets lost in the constant push for plot and often comes off as an afterthought. It’s just another example of Paltrow’s inability to pick something to focus on one thing over another; at least the robot looked awesome.
Young Ones is a technical achievement that is worth seeing though, and I am excited to see what Paltrow can do when he has a better screenwriter behind him. Nathan Johnson’s score was also very enjoyable and really helped boost this impressive sci-fi world.
Paltrow does let his desires to get flashy get in the way here and there, but I loved some of the ideas he had in his script, if only he could have found his characters and their story. Young Ones is worth a watch, but Smit-McPhee and Paltrow’s ADD get in the way of the director’s great world building and intriguing vision. This could have been something special, but Paltrow is certainly someone to watch.