If ever you should find yourself needing to explain the difference between a film being “well-shot” and “well-directed”, Exhibit A should be the new indie release Young Ones. Writer-director Jake Paltrow has created an intriguing world and spared not one cent out of his indie-sized budget to make it beautiful, but he doesn’t direct it well enough to avoid some storytelling problems.
Paltrow (yes, he is Gwyneth’s brother) imagines a near future in which droughts like the one currently ravaging California have become so intense that the rule of law itself has begun to break down in the American Southwest. In this world Michael Shannon plays a father trying to raise two children, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elle Fanning, against the specter of his wells running dry and the intrusive advances of a local man played by Nicholas Hoult.
Shooting on location in New Mexico, Paltrow and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens find as much beauty as possible in the possibility of “drought-blasted waste land.” The emptiness of the landscape is emphasized, so that the loneliness of this family’s everyday life can be in the background. The robotic pack animals which serve as the iPods of these subsistence farmers’ lives are as amazing a special effect as in any movie this year, possessing more presence and heft than anything in the most recent Transformers film.
And yet, Paltrow drops the ball in a number of key ways. He seems a bit too interested in making the film visually distinctive, breaking up longer scenes via montage or smash cuts. The end result is that the two most important scenes in the film, an early conversation between Shannon and Hoult and a similar one with Smit-McPhee and Hoult later on, make almost no sense. Paltrow smartly keeps the exposition to a minimum, but that puts some pressure on him to execute perfectly every moment where those explanations do come, and he cannot manage that.
Worst of all is the way that this film treats its female characters. Not only does Young Ones fail the Bechdel Test, but it does so in spectacular fashion, almost as if it is trying to draw attention to how little the women in this world matter. Fanning has one big emotional moment in Act One, and subsequently is reduced to a plot point meant to create artificial tension between the other two men and Hoult. There is some tragic irony in her story – she demands independence from her father, only to make herself far more subservient to a different man – but Paltrow doesn’t explore it and Fanning all but disappears from the third act of the picture.
Aimee Mullins has it even worse as Shannon’s wife, where significant special effects are employed to describe her medical condition but almost no story effort is employed to describe who she actually is. There is clearly some significant backstory going on between Mullins and Shannon, backstory that Hoult even hints at in one line of dialogue, but Mullins only gets three or four lines of dialogue in the movie and that plot element is not part of them. Whatever importance this woman might once have had for these characters, she’s now around mostly to make the men feel bad via her absence.
The first section of Young Ones hints at what could have been, taking a world which has been effectively designed and dropping Michael Shannon into it to do his best work. Shannon dials down the crazy that defined his career in movies like Bug and Take Shelter and delivers a measured, haunted performance. He’s one of the best actors working today, and he brings out the best from the performers around him. However, there’s only so much that can be done with this story, a collection of good ideas in search of coherence. Paltrow had a fine concept, and he deserves more opportunities to develop his imagination on-screen, but his first attempt falls a bit flat.