Young Ones Jake Paltrow
Published Oct 30, 2014Jake Paltrow's sophomore feature, Young Ones, is a dusty stoic western with a sci-fi embellishment that underlines the fleeting nature of the American dream. It's a stark, lived in film with characters hardened by an apocalyptic landscape in which water is the most valuable and rare of resources, afforded only by those that have cheated and clawed their way into affluence. But Tank Girl this is not; though the environmental template provides a backdrop for conflict, it also gives peddler Edward (Michael Shannon) and his son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) something to fight for when their well runs dry. This is a film about greed, blame and vengeance.
Initially, the story presents itself as an old fashioned tale of revenge. Early, after Edward outbids the deceptive and underhanded Flem (Nicholas Hoult) at an auction for labour robots — a visual effect treated as a mere banality amidst an otherwise barren desert landscape — there's a seedling of disdain. Flem holds a grudge against the otherwise righteous patriarch, blaming him for the state of disrepair his land has fallen into. Through a series of unfortunate events, Flem weasels his way into the heart of Edward's flighty, housebound daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) and into their home where, incidentally, his morally ambiguous actions and inherently nasty methods of doing business prove to be more effective than those employed by Edward.
As the title suggests, this generational disconnect is intentional. Though the more duplicitous actions of this younger generation generate better results, the template of blame — blaming the preceding generation or blaming those that have committed heinous acts when backed into a corner — persists. Jerome, the moral centre of this bleak exploration of humanity pared down, eventually starts to blame Flem for his harsh survivalist sensibilities, helping bring the trail of vengeance full circle. And even though everyone is aware of the futility of their actions — Flem even notes, "Blame is just a lazy person's way of making sense of chaos" — they're still slaves to its inevitability.
This is Paltrow's way of criticizing, or at least dissecting, the western myth. Just as petty grudges and an anarchic gunslinging sensibility developed the western front into the capitalistic mecca that it is today, Young Ones posits its end as a similarly stark environment where emotions are eschewed in favour of cold survival. It's a parallel that works quite effectively chiefly because Paltrow refuses to indulge in the cheap juxtaposition of futuristic with antiquated for sensational effect.
Instead, this is a tempered and restrained film that suffers only from some stylistic inconsistencies that vacillate between a classicist framework and one that's more deliberately fashioned. Similarly, though Nathan Johnson's score is effective in its progression, transitioning from a Little House on the Prairie wholesomeness to oblique melancholy by the film's end, the directorial style doesn't quite reflect the intended changing perspective and our supposed realization of this shift in sensibility.
Still, the harshness and the candid honesty of people trying to grapple with and rationalize surmounting injustices cuts to the bone of human folly. Paltrow smartly assesses what it is about human nature that creates conflict rather than focusing on the symptoms they present, which is leaps and bounds beyond most of the films about greed that have been made in America in the last five years.