January 30, 2014



The post-apocalyptic sci-fi western, which once must have seemed revolutionary and innovative, is now (it dates back at least to 1975’s A Boy and His Dog) an established subgenre.  Jake Paltrow’s entry into the field, YOUNG ONES, was roundly panned at Sundance, possibly because of that familiarity, but it’s a reasonably ambitious and quite well designed example of the type.

Although a–remarkably convincing, considering the low budget–robot donkey features prominently in the story, Young Ones is more western than sci-fi.  Drought and poisonous pesticides have parched the midwest, and lone independent rancher Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) tries to hold onto his precious land, making ends meet by carrying supplies to workers on the local water pipeline, which in the way of these things will only irrigate government- and corporate-owned land.  Ernest is raising seemingly weak, artistic son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and vain, harried daughter Mary (Elle Fanning), more or less on his own, because back when he was drunk, he severely injured his wife Katherine (Aimee Mullins), who now lives in a futuristic rural rehab clinic, her limbs operated by high-tech puppet strings.  (He’s now dry, although sorely tempted by the booze he carries to the irrigation workers.)

The villain of the piece is Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), a sociopath who will do literally anything to get his hands on Ernest’s land, from seducing Mary to committing multiple murders.  The main thrust of Young Ones is the escalating conflict between Flem (gotta love that name for a bad guy) and first Ernest and then Jerome, who’s not as soft as he looks.

The chief pleasures of Young Ones are in its visuals.  Paltrow’s previous (and first) feature, The Good Night, wasn’t all that memorable to look at, but Paltrow has embraced the stylized open spaces of the western landscape, with cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (who also shot Good Night) and production designer Sharon Lomofsky.  (The film was shot in South Africa.)  When, late in the story, the action moves into the nearest big city, the use of locations there is quite effective as well.

Dramatically, Young Ones is more uneven.  Paltrow is so enamored of the western genre that he tries to squeeze too many of its tropes into a 100-minute running time, and the characters fit all too neatly into their stereotypes.  A story that would be obvious and predictable in a conventional western doesn’t magically become interesting because there are robots around, and the lack of narrative surprise makes the pace feel slower than it should.  Paltrow might have been better off concentrating on one of his three protagonists and deepening that one as a character.

He does get good work from his actors.  Shannon, in an unusually heroic role, is impressive enough that Hollywood should seriously consider letting him out of his big-budget loony ghetto (showing even more range, he also has an inspired cameo in this year’s Sundance comedy They Came Together).  Hoult manages to convince a viewer that while Flem is unrelievedly calculating and vicious, he might talk a trusting soul into falling for his line.  Smit-MePhee makes the most of the only character who really transforms in the course of the story.  Fanning, alas, is mostly just lovely and wasted.

Young Ones is caught between being a cult exercise and an entertainment, and it’s probably not inventive enough for the first crowd nor enough fun for the latter.  Still, it’s a talented and fairly satisfying piece of work that deserved a better response than the Sundance opinionmakers largely gave it.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."