Published Mar 13, 2015Though set in a near-future dystopian landscape — one similar to, but slightly more plausible than, the world of Mad Max — Young Ones doesn't present itself as a sci-fi epic.
There's an early shot of a seeming drone hovering in the desert, and stoic patriarch Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) replaces the family donkey with a self-guided transport robot when an accident leaves the animal injured. But these are in the periphery, banal objects in a weathered, well-considered, western landscape where water is scarce and desperation is high.
Water is a commodity like oil. It's purchased at stations, and during the opening sequence — a storyboarded aesthetic wonder that defines the text as one of vengeance and despair — two thieves are executed by Ernest for trying to steal water from his well, which we later learn has gone dry and is the last of its kind in the area.
The decision to kill is one that frames the dynamic between Ernest and his son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In a way, this is a coming-of-age tale for Jerome that's mired in perpetual disappointment and inescapable existential dread; there's no indication that things will get better. Both men, and Jerome's sister Mary (Elle Fanning), hope mainly to maintain the status quo and survive, though Mary does hold some hope for a better future when Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult) expresses some interest in her.
Director Jake Paltrow's consideration of this environment and these characters is as stylized as it is restrained. As noted in the sole Blu-ray supplement, which is just storyboard comparisons, the framing of each sequence is calculated and exact, yet each scene is left to breathe, and the actors are given time to reflect on their predicament and inhabit their environment. This creates a tone of perpetual dread. We understand that survival means cold, unsympathetic judgment, which is exacerbated by a story that brings up past grievances between families and the acknowledgment that blame is a lazy person's way of making sense of chaos.
What's challenging about Young Ones is that it is defeatist and even somewhat predictable in its adherence to the template that's established early on, but there's an element of youthful whimsy that makes it heartbreaking; Jerome and Mary develop crushes and have some youthful ideals that the world inevitably crushes down. It's tragic but pointed in its observation that the "young ones" are typically left to make sense of a world handed down to them by flawed people that taught them mainly to make the same mistakes they did.