Grace: BJoven, La (1961)

Director: Luis Buñuel

Stars: Bernie Hamilton, Zachary Scott, Key Meersman, Bernie Hamilton

Release Company: Valiant Films

MPAA Rating: NR

Luis Bunuel Store

Bunuel: The Young One (La Joven)


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While living in Mexico, Luis Buñuel created his second (and final) American film, The Young One (aka La Jova, White Trash, or Island of Shame), in 1960. Although apparently set on a coastal South Carolina island, Buñuel actually shot it near Acapulco and in the Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. He also used Mexican technicians, so it may seem strange to consider this a product from the States. But nearly all the actors were American, and the film is performed in English. It didn't do well critically or commercially when it opened in New York, however, and The Young One now ranks among the most obscure and difficult to locate of Buñuel's works. It also ranks among the most misunderstood of his films, as its apparent simplicity camouflages more complex ideas.

As Buñuel states:

"One of the problems with The Young One was its anti-Manichean stance, which was an anomaly at the time, although today it's all the rage . . . Once upon a time, the movies reflected the prevailing morality very closely; there were the good guys and the bad guys, and there was no question of which was which. The Young One tried to turn the old stereotypes inside out; the black man in the movie was both good and bad, as was the white man."
Opening with a woman screaming "RAPE!" off-screen--an automatic death sentence for any black man accused by a white woman in that time and place--a black jazz musician named Traver (Bernie Hamilton) escapes a blood-thirsty lynch mob, using a motorboat to reach a small isolated island that serves as a private game preserve for the wealthy. He's not alone.

Inhabiting the island are redneck game warden Miller (Zachary Scott) and a young teen girl named Evalyn (Kate Meersman), whose grandfather has just died. (In Buñuel's signature style, we see the dead man's bare feet sticking out over his death cot.) When Miller heads to town for the day, Traver befriends the trusting teen and gives her $20 for food, supplies, and a shotgun. Clearly tempted by the innocent girl's provocative lack of modesty, Traver cautions her to wear more than a towel after showering and deliberately refrains from touching her. Not so with Miller, who later works much harder to convince Evalyn never to let on what he does with her privately inside the cabin. When Miller discovers the twenty dollar bill, he assumes the worst about the island visitor; after all, he knows exactly what he'd want from Evalyn.

A power struggle ensues, when Traver shows up toting Miller's shotgun for protection. He must wait until the tar on his damaged boat solidifies before moving on, so he needs a place to stay. Miller sure doesn't like bending to the will of a Negro, but he instantly seizes another opportunity that conveniently suits his basest nature. Miller decides Traver can take up residence in the small cabin and that Evalyn must then move her bed into his—his newfound energized body language clearly signals sexual anticipation. What freedom he will now have in close quarters with the budding young girl!

The balance of power shifts slightly when Miller tosses a homemade grenade and demands his shotgun back. Traver relents, so Miller briefly resides comfortably in his manipulative "heaven," until interrupted by another unlikely pair: a racist boatman named Jackson (played by character actor Graham Denton, who appears as Mr. Cunningham in To Kill a Mockingbird, which features a similar rape case) and Reverend Fleetwood (Claudio Brook).

When Jackson relates how a black clarinet player fingered for rape has escaped, Miller immediate becomes gung ho to nail that "nigger," despite the fact that he's just raped an under-aged child. No matter how many times he insists that Evalyn is now a woman, Miller's underlying guilt continues to shine through, and the others all sense his obsession.

This sexual obsession is only one of many Buñuel themes and motifs. Although most modern treatments would focus solely on the pedophilia and racist themes, Buñuel is far more interested in broader themes that encompass the human condition. Once again Buñuel graphically illustrates how futile and irrelevant religion can be in an indifferent universe, how no man can be painted as purely good nor evil, and how man existentially plays out life no differently than the natural world. Human life is as expendable as the animals killed during the narrative. Thus, it's no accident that Miller stalks an island deer at the same time the lynch mob seeks Traver, nor is Evalyn's instinctive crushing of a large spider insignificant.

Effectively contrasting with veteran actor Scott is non-actor Meersman, whose complete inexperience comes across as naive innocence. This naivety plays out perfectly in one of the most comical scenes of the film, conjuring up images of Bill Murray's great baptism scene in Ed Wood. In this case, however, the young girl has no idea what the minister is leading her through the woods for, as he attempts to "save her soul" after her rape. Her sputtering timing is pitch perfect, solidifying her memorable debut. As Buñuelonce indicated, his best acting successes come from children and midgets.

It's a shame that this film didn't receive more notice when it was released, because that makes it extremely difficult to locate on tape today. However, if you're fortunate enough to find a copy, The Young One is worthwhile viewing. Unlike the majority of banal screenplays that touch on racism and/or pedophilia, Buñuel supplies far more complex material for post mortems. For an artist that supposedly was anti-religious, he provokes more discussions about life's existential problems than more conventionally moralistic filmmakers.

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