The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013) Review

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As a lover of French cinema, an “obsessionnel des contes français”, I of course adore the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. His releases in the world of film have included some of my favourite motion pictures of all time. The City Of Lost Children, Delicatessen, Mic Macs, and one of my absolute favourites that sits “haut de la pile”, Amelie. I was then, of course, excited when I learned that he would be making The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Written by both Jeunet and longtime collaborator Guillaume Laurant, it is based on the novel “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet” by Reif Larson.

A moving, bright and quirky tale, this is one of those films that is pretty damn difficult to dislike, and for me it exceeded my expectations which weren’t by any means low.  We meet T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett), a young 10 year old boy who lives with his parents, his twin brother, Layton and his older sister, Gracie on a ranch in Montana. A science prodigy, T.S. one day gets a phone call from The Smithsonian in Washington DC, informing him that he is to be presented with a prestigious science award for his creation of a perpetual motion machine, unbeknownst to them that T.S. is only a young child. With the death of his twin brother from a tragic accident in the family barn, his family’s response causes T.S. to feel lonely and shunned. Without informing his family, he packs his suitcase and heads to Washington DC to the reception being held in which he is to be the guest of honour. Traveling in trucks and on train lines, meeting people along the way that impart words of wisdom and encouragement on him, T.S. takes on an adventure to claim his prize, all the while questioning his place in the world, and within his family.

T.S’s father, played by Callum Keith Rennie (Memento), is a quiet man, born too late and obsessed with the cowboy way of life, his living room smelling of “whiskey soaked leather and mouldy photographs”, in the words of T.S. himself. His lack of eye contact and warmth towards T.S. causes the young man to feel unwanted by his father, questioning whether his father feels like the wrong son died. T.S’s mother, Dr. Clair, played by Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeney Todd), is an amateur entomologist obsessed with the discovery of certain species of insect. She shuts down after the loss of Layton, becoming something of an “empty home”, not giving the much-needed support and motherly-love to T.S. His older sister, Gracie, played by Niamh Wilson (Saw III), is hard-nosed and somewhat negative towards T.S’s passion for science, though deep down she shows a strong caring aspect of her personality and love for her young brother. The family dynamic is what carries the film along, and as T.S. rolls along on his trip to Washington, we learn more about the deeper thoughts and feelings of them, and the reasons they appear to be closed-off to T.S’s need for comfort and support.

The cast do a wonderful job in this film, and the side-characters are also incredibly enjoyable, especially long-time Jeunet actor Dominique Pinon (Mic Macs) as train-riding Two Clouds, and Judy Davis (Barton Fink) as Smithsonian employee and money-hungry G.H. Jibsen. The writing; magical, moving and strong, helps to take these characters to a higher level and in doing so allows the film to feel somewhat fantasy-like with a realistic edge that helps us connect deeper with them. Beautiful, rustic and dreamlike cinematography from Thomas Hardmeier and gorgeous music from Denis Sanacore, the whole package of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is glorious, and works to creating a film that is both charming and touching, magical and hilarious and filled with heart. That is something that I feel Jeunet and his collaborative partners have done so well over the years. The heart and soul that spills from the screen in their films is something I have yet to refrain from being caught up in.

Catlett, as T.S. himself, is a wise, intelligent and brave kid with a sadness and concern behind his gaze, and the performance, while not perfect, is very good, especially when his age is taken into account. I found T.S’s tale to be a delightful one, from the ranch and all its visual quirks, to the railroads and highways, all the way to Washington DC. There has been lots of comments on how this film is “not as good as Amelie” or “not Jeunet’s best work” and while I may agree with those observations, it is one of those occasions where pointing out what this film isn’t is to do it a disservice. I had so much fun with this film, and I laughed as much as I felt a lump in my throat, and I smiled at that warm feeling it put into my guts. If this lays in the middle of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s filmography then it lays among some of most fascinating films I’ve ever witnessed. I recommend it highly, especially for those who like a yarn to be spun out of the magical curiosity of the world.

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