The Life Desertic
2014 Sundance Film Festival
Young Ones (2014)
Some time in the near future, arty teenager Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives on a remote farm with his sister Mary (Elle Fanning) and their father Ernest (Michael Shannon). Water is a resource more precious than gold. It hardly ever rains anymore; and the land has always been — in Jerome’s lifetime — a desert. Ernest is a good man, willing to help out the locals and share what little he has, but who is unafraid to kill marauding strangers who threaten his family. The closest threat, of course, comes from Mary’s boyfriend Flem (Nicholas Hoult).
With this set-up, writer-director Jake Paltrow (brother of the more famous Gwyneth) has created a story that combines the best elements of the Western and science fiction into a coming-of-age tale that almost manages to skirt most of each genre’s clichés. Many of the movie’s more startling elements, such as the mother’s life in a rehab center — she has suffered a terrible spinal injury, but is able to move around with the help of a system of brace wires not unlike that of a cable car — are handled matter-of-factly, making the science easy to accept. The C.G.I. is also virtually flawless and very naturalistic; two of the movie’s producers spoke about this at length at the 26th Galway Film Fleadh but to say more would spoil the effect.
Of course, the movie is not perfect. It’s impossible to send two men to a machine auction in the desert without waiting for the Jawas to attack. The influence of Wes Anderson is also visible in the section titles and some right-to-left landscape panning shots even before his name appears in the “special thanks” section of the credits. The pacing — especially in the second half — drags quite a bit, as if Mr. Paltrow didn’t trust either his actors or the audience to determine what Jerome knows and the decision he needs to make. Most shamingly, the characterization of the women is a boring throwback to the Westerns of old, when they had nothing to care about except cooking and sewing.
But none of that should detract from the power of the three main performances. Mr. Shannon positively glows as a steadfast good man determined to hold onto his land and make an honest living. Mr. Hoult — whose resemblance to a young Ethan Hawke is startling — puts teenage roles behind him as a man who is incapable of caring about how his actions affect other people. And Mr. Smit-McPhee, who must be positively gasping for a modern-day role in a nonapocalyptic setting, brings a calm center to a young man who must decide quickly the kind of an adult he wants to be.
Giles Nuttgens’s cinematography is outstanding; it emphasized the relentless sunshine and the baking heat without overexposure. They also filmed on 35mm, which makes this movie practically the last of its kind. But the music by Nathan Johnson betrays Mr. Paltrow’s lack of faith in his material. Thirst is one of the universal feelings; and since the water wars are beginning in various parts of the globe, “Young Ones” would have been much better if everyone involved in its making had trusted us to keep up.