The film begins with Traver, a man on the run from the law due to allegations that he's raped a woman, rowing to the shore, set to the spiritual song Sinner Man, sung by Leon Bibb. This being the 60s in the American South, him being a black man and the person crying rape being a white woman, the truth, that he in fact is innocent, therefore has little importance. He reaches an Island which has only two inhabitants - thirteen year old Evvie, an uneducated and unruly child who is a bit too dim for her own good regarding the motives of the other inhabitant - gruff and "manly" beekeeper Miller, who used to work with her grandad before he dies at the start of the film. On noticing that she can look quite pretty when she tidies herself up, Miller suddenly realises he wants to bung the young girl, developing boobs and all. And hence, we enter the murky territory of Luis Buñuel's film about racism and child abuse, adapted from Peter Matthiessen's short story Travellin' Man.
The Young One is probably the least Buñuelesque film of his that I've seen. The storytelling is linear and straightforward, it's one of his two films set in English, plus the themes - of male animosity, personal grudges, racism et al feel more at home in a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood film. That said, one element prevalent in most of his films and present here is the tendency for at least one of the cast members to over-act hilariously. Here, it is Key Meersman playing the blossoming girl Evalyn. Evvie herself is a likable enough character - she, unlike her neighbour, is not racist, and treats Traver with respect and admiration. She is also a lamentablly naive character, not putting up much of a fight when the sexually frustrated brute Miller comes to her bedside and takes her bunginity. That said, she is, as Kanye West might describe as be one of those girls who "what I love most she had so much soul", and as such, Evvie deserved a better performance than the bland and plain line-reading one Meersman gives. The two male leads are significantly stronger, particularly Bernie Hamilton as the afflicted and much-maligned jazz clarinet who has been abused and ridiculed, but refuses to lose his pride.
In terms of the two key themes of the film - child abuse and racism, Buñuel does a far better job in his depiction of the latter than the former. People back then really were as single-minded as he shows them to be, and it's no coincidence that the three characters in the film that can see above skin colour - Evvie, the Reverend and Traver himself, are portrayed as the good guys. And, even then, prejudice still runs in the veins of the white people, albeit unwillingly - Evvie refers to the clarinet as a liquorice stick, suggesting that, if bought up in racist surroundings, making such comments might be an intrinsic thing. The paedophilia was dealt with woefully. I fully expect the character of Miller to get his full tribulation for taking advantage of an unknowing 13-year-old by dying, but I was disappointed. Whilst the "say no to racism" message is clear, the stance against paedophilia is a bit more questionable. "She's a woman," says Miller defensively, suggesting he has no repentance for debasing Evvie. And for that, more than anything else wrong with the film, the highest grade I can give it, for all its strong dramatic moments and intelligent dialogue, is...