Sometimes the best moments of life are saved for the end of our journey. In Youth, the latest film from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, two longtime friends reflect on their lives while debating their next steps. It’s a subtle and beautiful film, offering insight on the later years of the human experience rarely seen in modern cinema, and it features a variety of strong performances that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Fred (Michael Caine), a retired composer, is vacationing at his favorite Swiss spa with his dear friend Mick (Harvey Keitel). As Mick works his life away trying to complete what may be his best screenplay to date, Fred is given the opportunity to perform for the Queen. Fred is flattered, but he initially declines because he feels conducting is something that is now behind him. He chooses instead to spend his time reflecting with Mick on the women and exploits they each have experienced, as well as the ever-gnawing questions of what might have been if either chose a different path for themselves.
Also visiting the spa is a young actor (Paul Dano) who is seeking a bit of solace while developing a character for his next role. He sees a relatable spirit in Fred, aligning his frustrations with being pigeonholed as an actor with how Fred must feel when people only know his most popular works. It’s the kind of narcissistic observation that might push the average person away, but Fred can’t help taking an interest in the young man. Maybe he sees a bit of himself oh his free-wheeling spirit, or maybe he sees what he could have been had he made other choices in his life, but something about the young man connects with Fred in a way the rest of the world cannot.
There are a slew of supporting characters as well, including Fred’s recently single daughter (Rachel Weisz), but Sorrentino makes it a point to keep everyone outside the three main players in the background for the majority of the film. Their lives are given depth and their stories have arcs, but they each pale in comparison to the journey taken by our leads. If anything, the film’s greatest fault is that it has too many interesting characters and nowhere near enough time or skill to properly develop each as much as you would hope.
When he gets a moment to himself, Fred likes to take in the world around him. He may claim his days of composition are over, but for Fred the world is a veritable smorgasbord of sounds just waiting to be led in song, and he uses his downtime to imagine himself conducting mother nature. That idea might seem crazy to some, but for Fred it is as close to reconnecting with his one true passion as he is able to come. Meanwhile, Mick toils with his writing in hopes of creating something of a cinematic testament, but he finds himself trying far too hard to be morose. Like Fred, he’s allowed death creeping presence to consume him, and it has begun to make an impact on his art.
As the film carries on, Sorrentino’s focus on his characters remains strong while the execution of the story itself begins to unravel. Youth doesn’t have a single decent transitional sequence, opting instead to play as a series of moments from a shared vacation that are broken into chapters thanks to occasional musical interludes. It’s the kind of thing that feels incredibly frustrating early on, but as long as you fall for the characters you will begin to care less and less about how things are presented. It’s never ideal though, and even when the film comes to a close you can’t help feeling things might have felt a bit more cohesive with someone else at the helm.
There is a better movie in Youth than what is presented to the audience, but as is the latest creation from Paolo Sorrentino is a bittersweet, albeit clunky ode to aging. Caine and Keitel deliver memorable turns, though neither actor is asked to leave their comfort zone, and they are supported by a young cast that adds plenty of color to any already vivid world. The message of the film seems to be that life only has meaning as long as you have a passion to pursue, be it art or human, and that death comes for those who feel they have already lost any reason to live. It claims the fear of death is fine as long as it motivates us to keep living, and I have to agree. I wish it were told in a more cohesive fashion, but regardless I believe Youth is a film that should be seen, if for no other reason than to remind us why it is so very important to continue living with purpose. You can choose what it is and why you do it, but live for something more than pure existence. Otherwise, you may never truly know what it means to be alive.