PARK CITY – If you only see one Dust Bowl sci-fi eco-western starring Nicholas Hoult this year… well, maybe wait for the next one. Arriving in Sundance on a tide of buzz that seems justified only by its on-paper singularity, Jake Paltrow's infallibly earnest genre experiment “Young Ones” marries the stark heartland integrity of John Steinbeck to the post-apocalyptic nihilism of “Mad Max,” with the waxen self-importance of neither. Relocating a classical land-ownership saga to a barren New-Old West situated, we can only hope, in the very distant future, Paltrow's film never quite finds the happy medium between B-movie splatter and literary elevation; if nothing else, it confirms my suspicion that films adorned with their own chapter headings are rarely good news.
Conceptually, at least, “Young Ones” represents an ambitious advance on Paltrow's 2007 debut “The Good Night,” a middle-of-the-road male-angst comedy enlivened — if not necessarily enhanced — by dreamy subconscious interventions. No surprise, then, that the director's inner fantasist has taken over in his follow-up feature: “Young Ones” intrigues most in its earliest, haziest stages, when we're still trying to determine what world we're actually in. It begins with Michael Shannon in a desert, brutishly blowing the heads off two jibbering bandits as they relieve themselves — but that's par for the course with Shannon's films these days, and it takes some time for the rules of this harsh new frontier to emerge.
As it turns out, Shannon's Ernest Holm is one of the notionally good guys, a crop-farming patriarch whose demeanor is as dry as his fields — seemingly terminal drought has long desiccated the area, and few others share Ernest's conviction that the rains will eventually come. With his wife (Aimee Mullins) crippled — her husband's to blame, apparently, though we're never told how — and confined to a complicated life-support apparatus, Ernest fends stoically for himself and his two children, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Mary (Elle Fanning). While Jerome is a vulnerably devoted daddy's boy, Mary has impatient plans for a life of her own — chiefly involving her opportunistic, malevolent boyfriend Flem (a handsomely leering Nicholas Hoult), who can scarcely conceal his designs on Ernest's land.
From this resolutely old-fashioned premise, things spin out much as you'd expect — albeit with fancier ammunition and more lumbering robot-horses than in its twin inspirations of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. (The parched, elemental milieu lends proceedings a certain Biblical quality, minus any allegorical moral allusions: we appear to be in a post-religious Middle America, though at least country music has survived.) The film's environmental concerns, meanwhile, seem very much of the now: highly priced and perilously rare, water is the new gasoline, and while not exactly hectoring in tone — Paltrow evidently doesn't spend too much time on his sister's website — “Young Ones” appears to issue a passive-aggressive warning about the potential consequences of natural resource abuse.
The film, meanwhile, wastes some pretty precious resources of its own, with Shannon — on typically terse form — prematurely dispatched and Fanning given little to do other than stare soulfully out at dusty vistas while hanging laundry. (This particular future looks pretty bleak for everyone, but women are still drawing the shortest of short straws.) The action, lean as it is, is increasingly narrowed to a face-off between Hoult and McPhee, neither actor quite conjuring the requisite physical or psychological intensity to ground the film's wafty, quasi-Malickian atmospherics.
With the film markedly inert for one that combines so many punchy genre elements, a lot could be forgiven if “Young Ones” succeeded as a genuinely striking mood piece — yet its vision of a techno-rustic future never quite convinces either. Desolate, sprawling South African locations, shot in eerily flat-lit fashion by Giles Nuttgens, make for a more effectively alien American West than the one we currently have. Yet the design within it looks strenuously like design, not all of it — least of all beige suits that evoke nothing so much as Cannes security guards — a natural fit for the film's story world. (Ditto Nathan Johnson's lush orchestral score, slathered indiscriminately over sparse scenes that hardly call for it.) Caked in heat and dust, “Young Ones” aims for a kind of dull finish that shouldn't extend as far as it does to its storytelling.