Young Ones: Sundance Review

Young Ones Sundance Film Still - H 2014

Young Ones Sundance Film Still - H 2014

There’s little refreshment on offer in this parched lo-fi sci-fi drama, despite the distinctive element of its retro rural setting.

Michael Shannon, Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult and Kodi Smit-McPhee star in Jake Paltrow's Western-styled vision of a drought-stricken future.

Ponderous, self-important and thematically narrow, Jake Paltrow's dystopian-future Western set in a Dust Bowl where water is controlled by the state and monopolized by industry is all oppressive mood and atmosphere with not much on its mind beyond an old-fashioned tale of murder, retribution and a robo-cow. Young Ones is visually commanding and not without inventive ideas, plus its pared-down narrative at least rescues Michael Shannon from the thudding memory of Man of Steel. But otherwise, this lethargically paced, dehydrated update on There Will Be Blood will be strictly for artsy minimalist sci-fi enthusiasts.

Arid locations near the Namibian border of South Africa stand in for an unnamed U.S. state gripped by a prolonged drought in the seemingly not too distant future. Paltrow's original screenplay makes it clear that while rural areas have been ravaged by pesticides and abandoned, overpopulated city life and technological advances continue elsewhere. That makes it conceivable that while the ragged characters here have regressed almost to frontier conditions, folks in Los Angeles may be wearing high-waisted slacks and falling in love with their operating systems.

The film is divided into three chapters, each named for its protagonist. The first and best centers on Ernest Holm (Shannon), an honest man nonetheless willing to shoot bandits who try to break into the well that has kept his patch of land from turning completely barren. One of a small community of hardscrabble survivors who have hung on while others have fled, he's old enough to remember when there was green for miles around.

An alcoholic who struggles to stay off the hooch he delivers in supply runs to nearby irrigation pipeline laborers, Ernest is plagued by guilt over an accident that left his wife, Katherine (Aimee Mullins), a permanently hospitalized paraplegic. In one of the film's simple but effective future-world manifestations, she has been refitted with an artificial ectoskeleton that allows her to walk on brace wires. Ernest lives in a modest shanty-type dwelling with his dutiful son, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and rebellious daughter, Mary (Elle Fanning).

Ernest keeps trying, without success, to convince the pipeline construction chief (Robert Hobbs) to extend the water supply, allowing him to rejuvenate his land and grow crops. When the donkey he uses to transport supplies is put out of commission, he makes an auction purchase of a Simulant, a robotic beast of burden that can navigate rough terrain. (It's like an open-topped mini version of the walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, and I want one to cart the groceries home from Whole Foods.)

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Both the Sim and Ernest's supply run are coveted by Mary's shifty boyfriend, Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), who turns her against her father and is the subject of Chapter Two. His ruthlessness helps him succeed in getting the pipeline diverted, and he marries Mary, who is soon with child just as the fields are once again filled with wheat. But Flem hasn't counted on the Sim's video memory bank containing recordings of its journeys. When Jerome scans that footage, he learns a startling truth, and his revenge in Chapter Three turns up the volume on the underlying echoes of Greek tragedy.

After this movie, together with The Road and the upcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Smit-McPhee might want to stay away from the foreboding future for a while and vacation in the present. But his performance here is affecting, watching and learning from his overprotective father until the time comes to take charge with a quiet sense of purpose. There's also a gentle interlude with a girl he encounters in the city (Liah O'Prey), a meeting that may have been preordained by Ernest and could have benefited from further development.

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Paltrow shows a capable hand with the actors. Shannon looks so at home here as a conflicted family man battling inner demons and encroaching villains that one longs to see him tackle a more classical Old West role. Carrying on the vogue for androgynously pretty bad guys, Hoult's fine-boned features are put to decent use as the fiendish opportunist, roaring around on his motorcycle. (Is it just me, or does Flem Lever sound like something to clear congestion?) Only Fanning is underused in a role that never acquires much shading, though watching her wash dishes using sand is an evocative image that lingers.

However, the characters only intermittently engage our interest, let alone our sympathies, especially once Ernest retreats from the picture. That leaves the burden on cinematographer Giles Nuttgens' gracefully composed shots of the harsh landscape to hold our attention, while the dramatic stakes are pumped by Nathan Johnson's score, which is laid on a little thick but appropriately mixes somber symphonic sounds with folksy Western tunes.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Cast: Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Elle Fanning, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Hobbs, David Butler, Aimee Mullins, Christy Pankhurst, Alex McGregor, David Clatworthy, Liah O'Prey

Production companies: Subotica, Spier Films, Saint Shadow, in association with Quickfire Films, Bi Frost, Six Sales, The Exchange

Director-screenwriter: Jake Paltrow

Producers: Jake Paltrow, Tristan Orpen Lynch, Michael Auret

Executive producers: Marina Fuentes Arredonda, Peter Garde, Tara Moross, Nathan Johnson, Clinton Aiden Smith, James Atherton, Jan Pace, Brian O'Shea, Robert Ogden Barnum, Daniel Wagner

Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens

Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky

Music: Nathan Johnson

Costume designer: Diana Cilliers

Editor: Matt Mayer

Visual effects supervisor: Ditch Doy

Sales: UTA

No rating, 100 minutes.