Young Ones takes place in an unknown land within the contingent United States in a time in which the water resources have run dangerously low. The inhabitants wash their dishes with sand, but scrounge up the money to buy robotic creatures at auctions. Jake Paltrow’s high-concept feature endeavors to bring a global issue home, while considering man’s relationship to technology.

Michael Shannon is Ernest Holm, a stubborn man of the land, who refuses to leave the infertile sands on which he’s raised his two children – daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) and son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee). His industrial sensibilities gave him the wherewithal to build his own well, but in the worsening drought it has dried up, forcing him to try to broker a deal with those constructing an underground water pipeline. Ernest is convinced that if he can steer the pipeline towards his property, he’ll be able to turn his acres of wasteland into profitable farmland.

Cinematically, Young Ones, filmed in South Africa, is a wonder to behold. It looks both strikingly familiar, like the frontier lands during the Dust Bowl, and tragically ethereal. Paltrow’s work behind the camera draws the viewer in to the lazy hills and everlasting arid plains nearly as much as Shannon’s booming, patriarchal voice that quakes with authority and bellows with love when his character Ernest is talking to the kindred spirit of his son, played sensitively by Smit-McPhee, draws the viewer in the story’s humanity.

Young One’s central impetus is Ernest’s desire for water so that he can develop his land, and potentially, bring his wife home from the treatment facility that’s currently looking after her. Presumably, he’d equip the family home with the high-tech apparatus that allows her vegetative body to move about the premises, hooked up to cords and cables that attach to a ceiling track. Standing in his way, however, is his daughter's bad news boyfriend Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult).

Broken up into three parts, the first part of Young Ones is centered on Ernest, while its second and third parts revolve around Flem and Jerome, respectively. Despite Hoult’s strong performance, his character’s journey isn’t as easy to invest in, neither is Jerome’s. Both of their storylines fork out somewhat aimlessly before meeting again, spelling bloodshed. While the practical presense of the Simulat – a potentially sentient robot – in the first half of the film proves interesting, its importance in the second half is trying.

Another flaw in Young Ones is its careless portrayal of women. While Katherine Holm (Aimee Mullins), who is kept at the rehab clinic out of necessity, exudes quiet strength, she – like all of the other females in the movie – finds herself in a situation that’s the product of a man’s agency. Her husband’s drunken driving made her a vegetable. Her daughter, Mary, takes her place as the homemaker and superficially and destructively falls in love with the plain's resident baddie. And then there's Sooz (Alex McGregor), a young girl who gets knocked up by her boyfriend then unwittingly hands it over to him when he’s about to get a price for its head.

Despite its flaws, Young Ones creates thought-provoking moments and includes another strong performance by Shannon and inspiring ones from the up-and-coming Hoult and Smit-McPhee. It also indicates that Paltrow is a writer and filmmaker that will challenge himself and his audience with genre-bending work with a central story grounded in something that deserves our attention.

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