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Note: Reprinted from our 2014 Sundance Review

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Sprawling future Western quais-epic Young Ones offers a poignant deconstruction of sci-fi and western films, an allegorical gaze into a murky future that strips both genres down to the studs and builds them up as one.

Brother of Gwenyth and Godson to Steven Speilberg, Jake Paltrow successfully brokers this moody, panoramic vista of draught dystopia by juxtaposing elements of hi-fi tech against the dust bowls and wind storms of plains livin’. Technology has taken great bounds forward, providing the illusion of solace to a society brought to their knees by perpetual thirst, but with water in such scarcity, this Western shanty town is on the brink of extinction. Life nectar that it is, water has become the new oil, a cherished commodity that’s become even more rare and necessary, a cause for showdowns and scuffles.

Opening on a brutally tense standoff between hero Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) and two grubby water thieves, this expertly-realized world could conceivably be post-apocalyptic, sparsely occupied by a patchwork of desperate characters milling through stretches of sand-blasted country on a hunt for their next water source. Had it been such, it would risk bearing a striking resemblance to Cormac McCarthy‘s dystopian cannibal-drama The Road (which star Kodi Smit-McPhee also featured in) but we soon learn that Ernest and son Jerome (Smit-McPhee) are not alone. They live in a desolate settlement built of stacked shoddy boxcars complete with black market baby sales, dry-lipped, sandy-haired beggars, and its own class of elite citizenry.

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Ernest, a haunted, recovering alcoholic, has fruitlessly tried to convince the mob-like watermen to run a direct line to his desolate town but has been shot down over and over again. There’s life in the soil, he’s convinced. It, much like he, just needs another chance. Shannon sells haunted meditation, a character trait he’s perfected, and his watchful relationship with milquetoast son Jerome is a strong emotional platform for the narrative to rest on. Since The Road and Let Me In, McPhee has sprouted into an almost unrecognizable teenager but rather than fiddle with stodgy angst, his ‘becoming a man’ progression is a hat-tipping throwback to the Westerns of old.  

Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning play a young couple with their own update on Western boilerplate anchors. Hoult is willy and unscrupulous and Fanning, a housemaid dissatisfied with washing dishes (with sand, naturally). With Shannon and these three talented young actors, Young Ones lets the grit and speechless contemplation pile high, as any decent Western should. Better still, the landscape upon which this three-chaptered tale unfolds is so articulately designed that it feels as pronounced and occupied as Tatooine (in the original trilogy of course.)

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Like a Neill Blomkamp film, Young Ones soars when it’s building atmosphere. Stuck in the sun-bleached desert, we’re still acutely aware of the world at large. Radios blare affected sales announcements. Pack donkeys are phased out and replaced with Big Dog-style robotics. Supersonic jets boom overhead, ripping the sky from LA to NYC. In other parts of the world, processing plants synthesis water with nuclear technology and smartphones fan out with conceivably inventive new wave tech. The world may be moving forward but, for all we’ve seen, humanity has stepped backwards.

A riveting series of chapters of once upon a time in the future west, Young Ones spins a unique take on clutching onto one’s manifest destiny. Rich with morose mood, towering metaphors, and dusty, dusty atmosphere, just watching will leave you parched.

B+

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