There is a moment early on in this film where I realized you had lost me. During the slow reveal of an ad hoc water pumping station in the middle of the desert, all I could think was: that is not a water pumping station, it is a movie set inhabited by people pretending to work.
Presenting as a John Ford morality tale set in a fading civilization, Young Ones utilizes a complex narrative structure, where each act follows a different character. I think I understand what you and director Jake Paltrow were reaching for, but perhaps it was one sub-genre and two characters too many. It feels like all of the various aesthetic and narrative points of reference that the major participants value are woven together, but instead of a beautiful quilt you get an orange and green plaid sweater with one too many arms.
Young Ones is also defeated by its own ambitions. A film largely populated by naturalistic actors, it still attempts to create a mythic narrative. The sets are minimalist yet rich in small detail, but the natural landscape is breathtaking to the point where everything in front of it seems contrived and out of scale.
The contrast between the quiet, subdued performance of Michael Shannon and a film that is intentionally stagey and constructed (each act is announced by onscreen titles) fails to create the hoped for tensions, undermining both the actors and the plot device.
That is not to say there is nothing to admire here. Shot on film and in Namaqualand, Northern Cape, South Africa Young Ones is sometimes overwhelmingly beautiful. There are moments of real friction as well, although they all come as a result of interactions with Michael Shannon and he doesn't see nearly enough screen time. The rest of the cast honestly feels too callow and one dimensional for the weight they have to carry.
The production design fell short as well. While I enjoyed the cleverness of the mechanical donkey and some of the bits and bobs of the kind of regressive, analog universe you built—like shortwave radios and a distinct absence of iPhones and their iCousins— it still felt like an invented world rather than an inhabited one.
I would still rather watch a hundred films like this than a lot of other, less ambitious works that only aspire to product creation. But there are some really weak spots: the women characters particularly are reduced to narrative pivots and little else. Elle Fanning was utterly wasted in this film, and even when she was active in a scene she seemed to flail to find her place.
Maybe if everyone had dialed down their ambitions and found a crisper, more defined focus for the story the film might have matched its potential. I'm sorry Sharon, but I was hoping for more.