Monday, June 27, 2016

Young Ones

Spoiler-free.

Young Ones is a genre mashup of western and science fiction. Think of Cowboys & Aliens. Then think of the exact opposite of that. That is this movie.

In the near future (ah, I love the near future -- a place of infinite possibilities in storytelling) the land is experiencing a severe drought. Farmland has turned to desert, and the farmers have left in search of water; but not Ernest (). Ernest believes that the water will return and all he needs to do is wait for it while taking care of his land, and his family: His rebellious daughter Mary () who is dating his neighbor's shady son Flem () without his consent, and his son Jerome () who he teaches everything he knows, and who follows eagerly in his footsteps.

Written and directed by .

As a sci-fi and as a western, this movie takes the subtle approach. On the western side it's unusual just because it's set in a modern time. Besides the desert, it looks more like sci-fi, but its themes are distinctly, classically western. The look is sci-fi, and even quite dystopian with people doing things like washing dishes with sand and always looking dusty because that's how rare water is. There's also some real-life leading edge technology on display, and some that seems only just out of our reach, like a robotic rigging system that allows the family's paralyzed mother to walk herself around like a puppet. But there are no aliens or anything of the like, so the sci-fi remains very grounded and realistic.

But mostly this film's style is independent. Even bordering on art house type stuff. There's very little exposition, no audience pandering, and large amounts of symbolism and telling the story through camerawork rather than only through the script. Instead the script devotes its spoken lines to sounding realistic. At the beginning we seem to have come across this family in the middle of their story, and at the end we leave them to continue on without us. Conversations develop naturally and have that classic indie feel. You have to dig in a little to glean character development from them, and they are rich and memorable. I loved the scenes between Ernest and Jerome especially.

The robotic mule is a 'Big Dog" built by Boston Dynamics.

In fact, I really liked Michael Shannon in this film. Before, I'd only seen him play bad guys and side characters, which was enjoyable enough, but I've always figured he'd really grab my attention someday, and today is that day. Ernest is established so resolutely, and it's immediately obvious that the film will never be able to explore all the sides of his character even if it tried. He strongly evokes characteristics of hardened, on-edge ranchers of the old west, who mow down villains without a second thought, but are also dedicated family men. The film's first act is his, and later when the film shifts focus (to Flem in the second act and finally Jerome in the third) the absence of the charisma he brought to the screen was noticeable. Not to say the rest wasn't good; I just mean to point out that he was especially dynamic.

Kodi Smit-McPhee's performance as Jerome is second on the impressive list -- which is impressive in itself since Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning are also in the cast. Jerome is who the story is really about in a fitting coming of age plot line, and it was really neat to watch him develop from the kid who just follows his father, to a young man who takes charge on his own. By the end he has developed his own uniquely commanding presence.

Nicholas Hoult was interesting, playing a bad guy for an odd change. He was a good choice for the part because he plays bad well, but also I was influenced by all the distinctly good and innocent characters he's played, which created a neat conflict as I tried to figure out the character. Elle Fanning I think did a good job. Her character really annoyed me, but I think she was supposed to. So she was basically in the same boat as Hoult, but it didn't work as well for the movie.

"In a future without water vengeance will rain." Now that's a tagline. Too bad the film's title isn't so good.

Young Ones has mixed reviews from critics, but one thing everyone agrees on is that it's visually spectacular. The location in South Africa was beautiful and the practical effects helped out, but what I loved most was the camera work. Not just the framing of a shot to encompass the beauty of what was there, but the movement too. The camera was very often in motion -- panning through wide shots or utilizing extreme zooming to create several shots in one -- and that motion drove the film forward; keeping the plot from sinking into monotone. It also added interest to the film's artistic side, creating symbolism or deepening the story and performances. Imagery was the biggest impression this film left on me.

It is arguable that this film lacks in plot and character development. At first I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I certainly wanted to see more character, plus I didn't "get" a few details, and thought that I missed some of the symbolism that would have gave the movie more meaning. But the longer I thought about it, the more I warmed to it. I felt a lot of meaning attached to the story, just not in an overt way. The plot happens and doesn't dictate or pander or explain itself. It was simple, but it compelled me; at times it was staggeringly bold. And characters, if at all underdeveloped, were probably done that way on purpose. It makes us work to understand them which I think is fitting.

There's room for personal translation.

When this movie ended, I sat for a while thinking, and eventually figured that I'd have to watch it again just to understand it well enough to review it. But I re and replayed it in my head as I remembered it and finally came to my above conclusions. Now I want to see it again to understand and appreciate it even more. Because, unlike the film's farmers whose wells have long run dry, the deeper you dig into this age-old tale woven neatly into a futuristic setting, the less dirt you will find.

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