Movie Review: ‘YOUTH’ – A Beautifully Acted and Told Story

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

YOUTH | 118 min | R
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Rachel Weisz

It’s no secret that change is one of the biggest mysteries in life. Will it be rewarding or consequential… this question is something that makes change one of the biggest fears in life. And nothing symbolizes change more than age. We, as a society, mostly note age as something physical. It marks another year older, another smile line, a few more wrinkles. While all of that is a little disheartening, especially when paired with that old foe known as a mirror, it is best to think of age as something beyond physical; a maturation that occurs in our minds and hearts.

When we think of maturation now, it’s something of a passé verb, as if it’s a thing we only have to do every now and then instead of incorporating this change into our persona; “adulting” is what it’s referred to today. It can also be said that the stigma of the word “mature” is that of being old. No one wants to think of themselves as old, but when you are old, you tend to think of how you got to this life, here and now. This is the core of YOUTH, a story of two old friends at a resort as they contemplate their lives over an annual vacation.

The two friends are Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), tucked away in a Swiss Alps resort for a week. Fred is a retired orchestra conductor, who is being coaxed out of retirement on request of the Queen, but declines due to personal reasons. Mick is a Hollywood director, who is currently working on what he calls “his testament” of a film. As they enjoy their friendship, they also observe the other lives around them; one of which is Fred’s daughter and assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz), who has been dumped by Mick’s son and is trying to figure everything out, including her father.

While these are the personal conflicts of the characters, the narrative of YOUTH is less linear as it focuses more on how youth is gained when we age. A scene in particular has Mick at a tourist spot with his writers: He puts one of them at a viewing station, telling her as she looks through the tower viewer that the closeness of the view represents the future of a young person; he spins it around to juxtapose the former view with distance, a representation of the future for the elderly.

In other words, the main idea of the film is observation vs. reflection. When focusing on the younger people around Fred and Mick, they are observant: Lena observes her father from a different perspective; Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an actor staying in preparation for a role, observes Fred as a kindred spirit; a young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic) observes the world through her hands. On the other hand, the elder statesmen reflect on past experiences, such as what made them successful or a girl they fought over.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in YOUTH. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in YOUTH. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

All of these stories are set against a backdrop of striking beauty, not just in setting, but in any aspect of life. Paolo Sorrentino, who directed the Academy Award-winning THE GREAT BEAUTY, gives us an array of shots and scenes in between the dialogue that it gives everything an underlying meaning, saying that life is not about face-value. For example, throughout the movie, Fred lets everyone know that the doctors say he’s apathetic, yet we know that isn’t true, as we see shots of him keeping a tempo with a candy wrapper or sitting in solitude to conduct an orchestra of grazing cattle. The cinematography, shot with care and precision by Luca Bigazzi, bombards the viewer to keep them enthralled. Life is about the moments in between our search of healing a bruised ego.

It’s a delicate balance that Sorrentino commands, as too much imagery can leave the viewer confused, while too much dialogue can leave the film with a jaded mood. Each moment of dialogue is given the time it needs to sink in and leave an impression, whether positive or negative. Save for Dano, who was exceptional in this year’s LOVE AND MERCY, this is everyone’s best role in years, including a powerhouse cameo by Jane Fonda. While Fred is the central point, everyone is given their own scene-stealing moment and it gives weight to every character; we are invested in everyone involved as their youth becomes a question mark.

Whenever there is a film that artistry predicates narrative, it gives way to a more subjective viewership, and YOUTH is no exception. Know that, when seeing this movie, an open mind is needed to embrace everything you see. Everything that seems chaotic in presentation is planned, and that’s what makes the film so special. You’ll want to see it again because everything runs through your mind like a Rolodex long after the last shot.

Fred says towards the end of the movie, “I’ve become so old, with no understanding how I got here.” This line is the crux of the film, that accomplishments are just highlights, while everything in between forms you. YOUTH is not about getting old, but what you’ve learned when you were younger and how it incorporates into you now. Enjoy the scenery of your past, enjoy the view of your youth, and enjoy one of the best films of the year.

YOUTH screened at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival and it opens December 4.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.