Though it’s set in the 1960s, The Young One has a major Huck Finn vibe. It’s easy to forget the era while sitting in Miller and Evvie’s shabby cabins, until Traver starts dropping some hipster lingo. And aside from a couple of shots — a raccoon eating a chicken while the other fowl cower in a corner of the coop, a shiny new pair of high heels — you almost couldn’t guess this was a Bunuel film.
The movie opens as Traver, a black clarinetist on the run after he was accused of rape. He finds a boat and winds up at a remote island off the Carolina coast. This game reserve’s only permanent inhabitants are Miller, a beekeeper, and Evvie, a girl in her early teen years whose grandfather (Miller’s partner) just drank himself death.
As Traver hides away on the island, Miller takes in the newly orphaned girl. He intends to send her off to town the next day, until he realizes what a babe she is — and she is a really beautiful girl, we’re talking a pubescent Milla Jovovich-lookalike here. Then Miller decides to pour his grief into the sexual awakening of the dead dude’s ambiguously aged granddaughter. Creepiness ensues.
Before Miller can make his move, he leaves the island for the day to find a priest and to buy Evvie gifts. That’s when Traver shows up to cock block. Evvie helps the man with food and supplies, but soon Miller returns and discovers the fugitive. The N word gets thrown around, but Miller and Traver find some common ground in their shared military history. When Traver’s even more racist friend shows up with the priest, revealing why Traver is on the run, things get a little stressful. And violent. As the movie builds up to its conclusion, lots of lessons are learned about racism and rape.
That first theme — “racist white dude kind of learns to not be racist” — wasn’t new ground when the film was released, even if it was a surprising choice for a European director. The Defiant Ones tackled the topic a few years earlier. In the Heat of the Night, and plenty of others like it, came later. Still, The Young One’s behind-the-scenes story is even more interesting. Bunuel made The Young One during his years in Mexico. Many of the people he worked with had relocated to the country during the McCarthy era, in time for its golden age of cinema. Writer Hugo Butler was blacklisted, and producer George Pepper left the country rather than testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Some say those themes spill over into the final product.
Much has been said about the racial and McCarthy-era contexts of The Young One, in more intellectual terms than we’ve included here. But the Evvie character is so much more compelling than that stuff. When we meet her, she’s like a less-wild Nell, not speaking a word for many of her introductory scenes. It’s the 1960s and all she wants is to see a television; Evvie thinks it’s OK to plant a bottle of whiskey at her alcoholic grandfather’s grave. She’s so innocent, and not just sexually. She doesn’t think to keep the news of Traver to herself, nor does she understand why Miller thinks it’s so important that she keep their own secret from the reverend. To Evvie, Traver is just another person (one that’s probably less scary than the guy who’s trying to take her V-card at every opportunity), and she can’t fathom why he doesn’t deserve to eat at the same table as her and Miller.
In fact, when it comes time to make determinations about the film’s other characters, the audience can do so based on their interactions with Evvie (in addition to how racist they are, of course). After Miller’s crude introduction, the other men suddenly have suspicious intentions too, and it takes a few minutes to realize whether they’re also potential pervs or if they have the girl’s best interests in mind.
The Young One faded into obscurity for a few decades before it surfaced again in the 1990s. According to a Cinetaste article published at the time, Bunuel’s interpretation of “Travelin’ Man” went through a lot of changes before the final product was released. But none were so big as the addition of Evvie. She didn’t even exist in the short story — but she’s the best part of this movie.
Susan Cohen decided to leave her career in journalism to go back to school — for journalism. She's still not sure if she made a mistake. Visit susanjcohen.com to learn more about her.