Nothing busts canons quite like living in interesting times. In our ongoing Inflection Point series, we look back at the films that have taken on new relevance due to our ongoing cultural and political upheaval. Some beloved, some undiscovered, these titles deserve newfound consideration as film criticism evolves to meet the moment.
Sometimes, even being the younger brother of a movie star isn’t enough to get your film made. In 2008, Jake Paltrow had just directed his older sister, Gwyneth Paltrow, in the romantic comedy “The Good Night.” It was then that Paltrow – Jake, not Gwyneth – had the idea for his next film, one set in the future that included elements of both the Golden Age of Hollywood and American science-fiction. Still, it would take Paltrow years to bring “Young Ones,” the eventual title of his film, to the big screen.
Featuring a cast of now-established actors and peppered with elements of run-down retrofuturism, “Young Ones” is a film that has only improved with the reputations of its young talent. Now, the movie serves as a fascinating parallel to John Hillcoat’s “The Road,” itself a film built around the relationship between Kodi Smit-McPhee and his father-figure. This time, however, death and destruction are presented less as a departure for humanity and more as its inevitable and regular outcome.
“Young Ones” introduces us to Jerome (Smit-McPhee), a young man working alongside his father, Ernest (Michael Shannon), at an unspecified point in the future. Over the past decade, the land has turned against these rural communities, forcing families to struggle to make ends meet amidst a never-ending drought. Ernest still has faith in his land, but he first needs to convince a local utility crew to redirect water away from the corporate properties and to his small farm. Meanwhile, daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) has become the object of affection of Flem (Nicholas Hoult), the son of a disgraced landowner who steals supplies to make ends meet.
Ernest is a kind man, notorious for looking after his neighbors and sharing his water rations with those in need. This kindness does not extend to Flem. The two men find themselves at odds about both Mary’s marriage prospects and the use of Sim, a robotic mule that Ernest wins at auction from under Flem’s nose. When Flem uses Sim to help him rip off a local construction crew, the two men are pushed into an act of violence that Flem will spend the rest of the film trying to keep hidden from those around him.
While “Young Ones” was billed to audiences as a work of science-fiction, the film counts among its influences the work of classic Hollywood directors like John Huston. It is hard not to look at the arid landscapes captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (“Hell or High Water”) and not think of films like “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” where moral men and petty men alike collide in their efforts to wrestle value from the ground in a Depression-era wasteland. This effect is heightened by Shannon, who has never seemed more timeless as an actor than he does in the film’s first act.
That being said, this particular film belongs to Hoult. While many reviews of “Young Ones” chose to focus on his good looks, it is now easy to see the ease with which Hoult plays the scrabbling Humphrey Bogart type. Given the benefit of hindsight – and thanks to career-defining turns in both “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Favourite” – Hoult now emerges as Paltrow’s answer to a villainous Bogie, the seedy nobody whose conventional attractiveness is only matched by the ugliness we find inside. As thrilling as it is to see Shannon be allowed to play it straight, watching Hoult struggle to maintain his web of lies and murders is the film’s defining thread.
This depiction of Dust Bowl masculinity also sets the stage for “Young Ones” to offer a unique blend of past and future. In most science-fiction, progress is treated as a straight line. The default trajectory for humanity is towards bigger and better things; anything that frames the future as worse than the present must, therefore, be categorized as a post-apocalyptic work of fiction. The same disconnect can be found in “Young Ones.” Paltrow’s film offers the trappings of the future – all-terrain robots, holographic communication devices, floating digital marquees – without any of the promises that things have improved. For Paltrow, humanity inadvertently finds itself trapped in a circle, one where our push for progress dooms us never to be able to… well, progress.
And this combination of past and future makes “Young Ones” work in the present tense, too. In interviews, Paltrow spoke of his inspiration coming not from the Great Depression-era works of American filmmakers, nor works of contemporary science-fiction, but the struggles of modern countries against global drought. “There were two news articles,” Paltrow told Vice’s i-D Magazine in 2014. “one was about moving the capital of Yemen due to a lack of water and other was about the driest town in the world in Chile.” These connections were only heightened during the “Young Ones” press tour, where Paltrow was frequently asked about the parallels between his film and the ongoing California drought (considered by many experts to be the worst in over a millennium).
Like many talented writer-directors, Paltrow cannot resist the urge to make this subtext text. When Jerome meets with Sim manufacturer Calvin Hooyman for the first time, Calvin offers a few off-handed remarks about the cyclical nature of humanity. “I like history,” he says to a wary Jerome. “Everyone’s so damned scared to repeat it, they never thought how bad the alternative was.” Here Paltrow calls attention to his ahistorical storytelling, presenting man as a creature whose determination to chase the horizon, not his willingness to work through past mistakes, is what will eventually lead to his downfall.
In the end, “Young Ones” is a film without a defined era, borrowing cinema’s language of past, present, and future to craft a story of our endless mistakes. Our self-inflicted ecological wounds; our willingness to sell each other out for a small patch of land; the never-ending allocation of resources away from struggling families and towards the corporate entities. These are the narrative themes woven throughout “Young Ones,” and it speaks volumes that these concepts would be just as easily understood in 1930 as they will be in 2030. The real tragedy of humankind is not that we might have our future snatched from us. The tragedy is that our future looks an awful lot like the worst bits of our past.