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10/17/2014 07:15 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

ReThink Review: Young Ones -- Praying for Rain in the Sci-Fi West

Sometimes it's comforting when I write a movie review, then head over to Rotten Tomatoes to find that the majority of critics seem to share my assessment. It affirms that I'm not alone or crazy since other smart people agree with me -- safety in numbers. But it can be more satisfying to feel so strongly about a film, especially a small and little-known one, that you want to loudly celebrate and champion it even when popular opinion says you're wrong and alone. That's how I feel about Young Ones, a masterpiece of a film written and directed by Jake Paltrow that manages to feel futuristic, contemporary, and timeless all at once as it tells the story of three males (played by Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, and Kodi Smit-McPhee) attempting to right past wrongs and create a better life in a drought-ravaged not-too-distant future. Young Ones is one of my favorite movies of 2014, combining aspects of science fiction and Westerns with Greek and Shakespearean tragedy in a beautifully realized, utterly realistic, lived-in world with ages-old themes that continue to echo throughout the human experience. It makes me feel that in rushing to classify Young Ones as just more dystopian science fiction, critics who disparaged it based on that simplified categorization missed what a special movie this really is. Watch my ReThink Review of Young Ones below (transcript following).

Transcript:

One of life's great joys is when you stumble on a movie you've never heard of or even seen an ad for that surprises and impresses on every level, a feat made even more remarkable for having been achieved on a small budget. Jake Paltrow's film Young Ones is a film like that, and I'll go ahead and guess that you probably haven't heard of it either, unless you followed 2014's Sundance Film Festival. Though if you did, you might've come across the mostly middling to negative reviews Young Ones has unfairly earned so far. But having read those reviews, I'm honestly pretty surprised at how badly they seem to miss the point of this beautiful, quietly epic film, focusing too much on the film's science fiction and near-future aspects instead of its powerful, enduring themes that evoke everything from Shakespeare and Greek tragedy to Westerns and literature of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

Young Ones takes place in an unnamed Western state in a not-so-distant future that is so not-so-distant that it closely resembles what is happening throughout the American West today as extreme drought reshapes the physical, emotional, and political landscape. Those who could escape the drought have left, leaving only the desperate, the resourceful, and the stubbornly faithful to eke out a hardscrabble, dangerous, and increasingly lawless life reminiscent of what those who attempted to settle the Wild West endured.

Young Ones is divided into three chapters named for the film's three main male characters, the first being Ernest Holm (played by Michael Shannon). A father of two teenagers with a wife (played by Aimee Mullins) requiring extensive medical care, Ernest is a tough but generous man doing his best to provide for his family by running supplies to a waterworks camp in the mountains. It's a job that requires a mechanical donkey called a Simulit, which also becomes a touchstone and silent witness throughout the film despite its lack of sentience.

The second chapter focuses on Flem Lever, a young upstart played by Nicholas Hoult with dual grudges against Ernest for claiming land once owned by Flem's family and for being the disapproving father of Flem's girlfriend, who happens to be Ernest's daughter Mary (played by Elle Fanning). The third chapter is for Jerome, Ernest's lanky 14-year-old son (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who must come of age in order to settle a family score. While it's a bummer that Mary doesn't get her own chapter and more to do, she is in many ways the film's catalyst as all three males fight to possess or protect her.

It seems like critics have tried too hard to pigeonhole Young Ones as post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi, which I think is wrong on several counts. First, there hasn't been an apocalypse, but simply the continuing year-after-year grind of persistent drought and its associated effects, not unlike what is happening today in parts of the world affected by global warming-enhanced drought. This is not a world in chaos, but one where people have had time to adapt to their new normal while a government rewards some while disenfranchising others through the allocation of land and water rights, just as governments have done for centuries.

But to focus on whether Young Ones succeeds or fails as dystopian sci-fi is to miss what Young Ones is really about. It's a film about the importance of elemental, timeless themes like water, land, revenge, love, wealth, work, family, fertility, coming of age, regret, revenge, blame, forgiveness, manhood, and survival set against an ageless, harsh environment with harsh justice that evokes Westerns, tales from Biblical times, and books like "The Grapes of Wrath". The performances are terrific, the cinematography mesmerizing, while the evocative, grand score by Nathan Johnson elevates these desperate, imperfect people to participants in mankind's age-old fight to survive, protect one's family, and coax a living from the land in an unforgiving environment of limited resources.

And throughout Young Ones, and invoked in its title, is the almost instinctual resiliency and optimism of youth, those with so little past that they have no choice but to survive and grow in an attempt to secure their future. Beautiful but sometimes cruel, and futuristic while contemporary and timeless, Young Ones is a special film that I simply can't recommend enough.

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