Youth is a very admirable but scatterbrained film. It’s greatly helped by the performances, but thrown off course constantly by a flawed script. Retired composer Fred Ballinger tries to enjoy a vacation at a Swiss resort with Mick Boyle, a filmmaker and longtime friend who struggles to finish his last script with younger co-writers. Due to a failing marriage, Fred’s daughter stays at the resort with them as the old men reflect on their lives.
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, as Fred and Mick, put in well-rounded work. The two characters are treated with great moderation and neither seems overtly optimistic or pessimistic about their lives, past or present. They both pride themselves on having been successful in their lines of work while avoiding becoming intellectuals.
Mick and Fred speak passionately about their lives, but can also discuss their failing bodies with some levity. Despite some more outlandish scenes, they both come off as realistic.
The resort houses a variety of people that help shape the story. Rachel Weisz plays Fred’s daughter Leda Ballinger as she struggles to cope with her new single life and come to terms with her relationship with her father. Paul Dano plays Jimmy Tree, an actor preparing for an ‘important’ role while deeply regretting his choice to ever play a robot on a past television show.
Dano’s character can be pretentious to the point that I’m unsure how we’re supposed to see him at first. Regardless, it’s nice to see so many characters actually inhabiting a location. Recurring elements like the boy practicing the violin in the distance, a silent escort and an odd masseuse help add substance to Fred and Mick’s stay.
In contrast to the more realistic characters, the film also turns random resort inhabitants artificial for the sake of artful shots.
When the elderly walk single file past a nurse who welcomes each one with the same wave and inflection, it feels less like they’re moving to get somewhere and more like they’re moving for the film. Two elevators pass each other as three robotic elderly faces stare at three similar doctors. These scenes aren’t terribly frequent, but they feel out of place despite their own isolated quality.
In sharp contrast, other characters are too quirky, but do feel actually alive. A mountain climber awkwardly attempts to flirt with Leda, and stares wide-eyed at her from a distance. Mick’s co-writers appear so strongly as caricatures in their first scene that I thought it was a fake conversation. Many of these scenes are accompanied by an unbearably sappy tune and vocals as characters reflect on what it means to live.
The movie’s largest fault is that it does not strike a complete balance between the tones, but again its strongest assets are Caine and Keitel. The movie thrives on the way they can move from one feeling to the next in different circumstances.
The tones might be a bit uneven, but at least it’s not a one-note film. It’s not necessarily a thriller that ‘keeps you guessing’ but it’s not clear what’ll happen to the characters either.
The ending pulls the movie together very well, and Youth partially overcomes its flaws to become better than the sum of its parts. If you want to see a mix between a life-affirming comedy and an arthouse drama, you won’t regret seeing Youth.