Writer-director Jake Paltrow’s sophomore feature, Young Ones, thankfully avoids the typical trappings of the genre pastiche by utilizing its clear indebtedness to numerous other films as merely a starting point, rather than an end. The opening, wide-angle shots of desert vistas and barren lands could have been snatched straight from John Ford’s depictions of Monument Valley or David Lean’s expansive shots of the Middle-Eastern desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Nathan Johnson’s score, too, could be mistaken for mid-period Ennio Morricone, with a recurring, string-based theme that returns throughout. These points of reference, however, ultimately recede in light of Paltrow’s keen, never over-determined sensibilities that see the film’s themes through to their logical but perceptive conclusions, and without getting lost in what could have been an easily tangled web of self-aware jabs and self-aggrandizing allusions.
Young Ones imposes a strict structure by dividing its complex but altogether brief narrative into three chapters, each one named after the film’s leading male characters. It’s the near future, and although water is scarce and the land has been decimated by droughts, Ernest (Michael Shannon) scours local supply routes with his son, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), peddling booze and booming a shotgun when necessary to strike down potential thieves. His daughter, Mary (Elle Fanning), tends to the family farm, preparing meals from MRE-like bags that contain mush rather than the advertised burger and fries. The end is clearly nigh without water, so Ernest seeks to rejuvenate the soil by soliciting help from irrigation pipeline laborers, much to the chagrin of Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), whose interest in dating Mary stems from a grudge against Ernest and his desires to take the land for himself. The film’s narrative is Paltrow’s weak point, largely failing to examine the politics endemic to labor unions, land disputes, and the dregs of big business in favor of a more pop-oriented engagement with this future scenario as a template for youth-focused, audio-visual immersion, rather than a hypothetical, academic sci-fi scenario to be intricately resolved.
As such, Young Ones steadily boils its larger narrative concerns into the impish anxieties of its titular adolescents, that must wildly vacillate between reconciling young love, a comprehensive absence of meaningful culture, and an impending physical and psychological violence that hides in the plain sight of a brightly lit desert. Paltrow acutely expresses these unusual circumstances with numerous insert shots of various fluids, including liquor, blood, and nail polish, suggesting all of them as various cultural signifiers that have little meaning amid these hopeless circumstances of flagrant desperation. Ernest, in fact, becomes so hard-up for sustenance, that he takes a shot of gasoline while filling up his tank. If not quite satirical, these are audacious inclusions within a wide-netted allegory of absence, both visually and socially, in which morality can be made immediately primitive and consequence-free by the deletion of meaningful, shared experience.
There’s little primitive about Paltrow’s cinematic inclinations, however, which take seriously these potential implications, but without irony or bombast, and place their resolution in the hands of teenagers. For Jerome, especially, a late discovery via remaining surveillance technologies emerges as the film’s only literal implementation of simulacrum, where what Jerome sees in a grainy, blue-tinted series of shadowy images stands in for what he believes to be a murder. The interface effect still holds power in a world without screens and, although it’s unclear precisely how long Jerome has lived in a largely post-digital age, it’s this image that resolves uncertainty and compels Jerome to violence in a manner that suggests an inextricable, cultural hardwiring of masculinity-cum-will-to-power.
Paltrow’s digital-era film is, itself, a paradox in this sense, given that it updates classical, frontier archetypes for contemporary consumption, but these points simmer beneath the film rather than overwhelm it. Paltrow has made a youth film that rejects the PG-13-ification of genre work, not out of provocateur desires, but to render more laboriously and honestly the cyclical nature of violence as reality and violence as image. Bloodless violence, even on the dream-screen of cinema, is a lie. Young Ones finally, curiously, resembles something of a YA version of There Will Be Blood.