Traver (Bernie Hamilton) is a black jazz musician on the run from a false allegation of raping a white woman. Miller (Zachary Scott) is a gruff racist living in almost total isolation on an island. Evalyn (Key Meersman) is the thirteen-year-old granddaughter of Millers’ only neighbour on the island, now deceased.
Miller takes it upon himself to look after the girl (this chiefly consists of slapping her, yelling at her and treating her like a skivvy) until a preacher from the mainland can be sent for to “see about her situation”. It’s not long, however, until Miller’s designs on Evie are progressing way beyond her capabilities as a cook and housekeeper. He tells her she’s becoming a woman and rhapsodizes about how good she’d look in fine dresses and high heels. Ladies and gentlemen, the poor man’s Humbert Humbert is in da house.
Also in da house, or at least on the island, is our friend Traver, going to ground as part of his lynch-mob-avoidance campaign. He strikes up an offbeat friendship with Evie, while earning the disdain of Miller, who addresses him variously as “boy” and “nigger”. “I didn’t even let ’em call me that in the army,” Traver growls. The battle lines are clear. A war of nerves ensues as Travers’ attempts to depart the island are foiled by Miller, while Miller’s ploys to gain standing in Evie’s eyes are shown up and subverted by Travers’ friendship with him.
To quote Dominique Russell in her scholarly but thoroughly readable article on Buñuel at Senses of Cinema, “ ‘The Young One’, though slow-paced and rather stilted, is nevertheless interesting in the way it frames racism and sexism as parallel discourses”. The racism is depicted with blunt ugliness (Miller is joined, in the last reel, by an associate whose bigotry is even more pronounced), while the sexual element of the film is tad more implicit. It’s the latter, however, that is the least easy to watch. Although Buñuel never quite objectifies his heroine the way Kubrick and Lyne do in their respective versions of Lolita, he emphasizes the cusp-of-sexuality angle just enough to implicate the viewer. Moreover, while the theme of older male pursuing considerably younger woman prefigures the rampant lechery of Fernando Rey’s characterisations in ‘Tristana’ and ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’, Buñuel’s heroines in these films (a) are of age, and (b) turn the tables on their pursuer. Evie, after some half-hearted initial resistance, is utterly passive.
When Millers’ friend and the priest turn up at the end (the latter rare in Buñuel’s oeuvre as a man of the cloth who is not set up as a target for broadly painted satire), the slow-burn tension that has developed reaches boiling point. Fortunately, things never fully tip into the kind of histrionic melodrama many directors would have wrought from these ingredients.
“Slow paced and stilted” – Russell is absolutely right. The short running time drags. There are several incongruous moments (“quit your bawling” Miller exhorts a completely dry-eyed Evie at one point). Zachary Scott’s performance swings between half-decent character study and blatant scenery chewing; Key Meersman is luminous (there’s a fresh-faced innocence to her that’s slightly, oh-so-slightly underpinned by a Liv Tyler kind of sultriness) but given little to work with by the script; and only Bernie Hamilton – probably best known as Captain Dobey in ‘Starsky and Hutch’ – brings the film fully to life.
Still, ‘The Young One’ is interesting for the pointers it offers towards the latter stage of Buñuel’s career, and as easily the more interesting of only two films he made in English.