The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet

November 8, 2014
Kyle Catlett in 'The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet' (2013)
Kyle Catlett in 'The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet' (2013)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet belongs to the other extreme of Francophone cinema to the Dardennes. His films are modern fairy tales with characters that are impossibly charming or grotesque. One of his favourite actors, Dominique Pinon, who has a small role in The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, manages to be both charming and grotesque.

Jeunet’s films are undoubtedly entertaining but they have a cloying element – a need to be loved that can become irritating. His biggest hit, Amélie (2001), is a good example of this tendency, which didn’t prevent it from becoming a box office smash.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is based on the best-selling debut novel of 2009 by American author, Reif Larsen. The book was distinguished by the drawings and maps that accompanied the text, supposedly the work of the protagonist, a 12-year-old scientific genius.

Jeunet and co-writer, Guillaume Laurant, have incorporated this idea into the film narrative, inserting witty, animated graphics that take us inside the hero’s mind.

The filmic T.S.Spivet, played by newcomer, Kyle Catlett, is a 10 (not 12)-year-old prodigy who lives on a farm in Montana with a father (Callum Keith Rennie), who imagines he is a cowboy; and a scholarly mother, Dr. Claire, who devotes her time to the study of obscure beetles. Who else could this be but Helena Bonham Carter in her now-customary loon persona. There is also an elder sister, Gracie (Niamh Wilson) who dreams of being Miss America; and a twin brother, Layton, (Jakob Davies), who shares his father’s cowboy fetish. Neither should we forget Tapioca, the dog, with whom T.S. has conversations.

Layton is killed off at an early stage in a gun accident, but this doesn’t prevent him from making occasional reappearances.

The story begins to move when T.S. is informed he has won the Baird Prize, a prestigious scientific award conferred every year by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. It seems that he has invented a magnetic coil that solves the age-old problem of the perpetual motion machine.

Since Layton’s death the previously happy Spivet household has fallen into despondency. Feeling unloved and unappreciated at home and at school, T.S. tricks a freight train into stopping near his property, and jumps aboard.

His cross-country odyssey will take him to the Smithsonian, where he will meet the maniacal Miss Jibsen, played with verve by Judy Davis. On the way he encounters an amiable tramp, an eccentric truck-driver, and various hostile security guards. When he gets to Washington D.C. our hero has to make a speech at a swanky function, before being hauled off to a TV station for a hair-raising interview.

T.S. Spivet is yet another film in which adults act like children, and children like adults, but it lacks the edginess of a movie such as Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012). If you’re happy to take T.S. at face value, as a misunderstood baby genius in a world of grown-up imbeciles, you’ll find this film every bit as delightful as it strives to be.

A greater problem is that Jeunet has made a movie that is not quite for children, nor for adults, with a hero that is cute and precocious in the Shirley Temple manner. This probably means part of the audience will smile their way through this film, while the rest will grind their teeth. The only area of agreement may be the cinematography by Thomas Hardmeier, which is uniformly ravishing. When there is no attempt at gritty realism it seems there is no role for the hand-held camera.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Guillaume Laurant, after a novel by Reif Larsen
Starring Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Callum Keith Rennie, Niamh Wilson, Jakob Davies, Dominique Pinon
France/Canada, rated M, 105 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 8th November, 2014.