Director/Coscreenwriter: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Science nerds of the world, celebrate! A tiny film from France set largely in Big Sky Country has put a 10-year-old science prodigy at its center and schooled the United States on the need for more energy efficiency and fewer guns—or something like that. Other reviews I’ve read of this charming family film seem to lean heavily on the subtextual critique of American society The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet apparently packs. Personally, as one of the few Americans who has had a chance to see this film, which was virtually buried by its American distributor, the Weinstein Company (more on that later), I don’t see much to object to from a political or sociological point of view. Jeunet’s adaptation of American Reif Larsen’s first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, showcases the whimsy and sometimes genuine oddity of its director, so well embraced by the hordes of people worldwide who made Amélie (2001) the fourth most successful French film ever.
Larsen’s book is loaded with illustrations and side notes, which must have appealed to Jeunet’s detailed, eccentric visual sense, and the uniquely constructed, but emotionally distant family at the center of the story must have spoken to the dark playfulness Jeunet favors in his scenarios. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is classic Jeunet, a visually stunning film, though somewhat hampered by a lead actor not quite up to the task of carrying the picture and a too-short running time that made for some awkward transitions between the three acts of the film. (I shudder to think what it would have been like if the Weinstein Company had gotten its way and the film were shortened even more!)
Ten-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett) lives on a Montana ranch near the Continental Divide with his father (Callum Keith Rennie), a 19th-century-style cowboy, his entomologist mother Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), his teenage sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), and until his untimely death, his fraternal twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies). T.S. is as much a budding scientist as Layton was a budding cowboy, leading T.S. to wonder how his equally opposite-minded parents had ever fallen in love and gotten married. In an attempt to do something together with his brother, T.S. set up a sound experiment that required Layton to shoot his Winchester rifle in their barn. The rifle misfired, killing Layton, and the family retreated into silence and disconnection, leaving T.S. feeling lonely and guilty.
T.S. sits in on a physics lecture in which the dreamy, old instructor (Mairtin O’Carrigan) sets forth a challenge to those attending to invent a perpetual motion machine and enter it in the annual Baird award competition held by the Smithsonian. While one smarmy leader of tomorrow (Kyle Gatehouse) scoffs at the old man’s belief in creativity, T.S. approaches him and says simply, “I accept the challenge.” No one should be surprised to learn that T.S. wins the competition and is invited to Washington, D.C. to accept the award. The rest of the film details his journey east and his experiences once he gets there.
The film is divided in thirds—The West, The Journey, and The East—with a pop-up book of characters introducing each segment in the cinematic version of a bedtime story. Short, but perfect vignettes introduce us to Gracie, roaring about her freakish family, Dr. Clair and her distracted, obsessive muttering about her insects, and Mr. Spivet, revealed in the living room he has commandeered for his frightening collection of taxidermy and cowboy memorabilia. The living room, Dr. Clair’s work room, Gracie’s neo-hippie room, and even Layton’s messy, frozen-in-time bedroom are teeming to bursting with markers of each character’s exuberant personality.
T.S., whose point of view is privileged as our narrator, gives Jeunet the chance to provide lyrical images for his words, many of which are lifted directly from the novel. For example, as T.S. wonders about the mismatch of his parents, he recalls how they sometimes pass in the hall and touch hands; Jeunet films this gesture in slow motion at about T.S.’s eye level to put us in the moment. In another vignette, he breaks our heart when he shows Tapioca, the family dog, chewing on a metal bucket as T.S. informs us that this is the dog’s reaction to the loss of his master. We learn a lot about T.S from what he chooses to pack for his trip to D.C.—plenty of underwear, different-colored notebooks for different types of writing, his teddy bear, and his bird skeleton, the latter of which would have seemed less quirky if he had also told us that the first curator of the Smithsonian, Spencer Fullerton Baird, was an ornithologist.
T.S.’s ingenuity in hopping a freight train and evading the railroad bulls is exciting, hair-raising, and pretty funny in parts. The serious-minded boy, with nothing but a box of raisins for the trip, spies a hot dog stand and disembarks the train at night to grab a snack. When he is stopped by a hobo (Dominique Pinon) who is getting some hot tar to fuel his campfire, my heart nearly stopped as well. This nighttime scene amps the potential danger to a boy on his own, even one as clever as T.S., but in the end, the boy’s rationality in refusing to join the hobo in enjoying a campfire tale renders the scene fairly depressing.
The film went a bit slack for me once T.S. reaches Chicago. He hides his overstuffed suitcase and sets out with a backpack of essentials to thumb a ride. His misfortune is to be seen by a railroad security guard (Harry Standjofski), who chases him to a lock on the Chicago River, forcing T.S. to jump across the opening gates. He is injured in the process, but the guard, fearful for the boy’s life until he reaches the other side safely, begins shaking his fist and yelling again. The film dispenses with the rest of the trip when a trucker (Julian Richings) takes him all the way from Chicago to the front door of the Smithsonian, foreshortening the adventure aspects of the film. It falls completely into caricature from this point forward, as civilization in the form of Smithsonian Deputy Director G. H. Jibsen (Judy Davis), all of the guests at the award ceremony, and a TV talk show host (Rick Mercer, real host of the satirical Canadian program Rick Mercer Report), all behave like cartoon villains of marketing and neoliberal sentiment, sniffling as T.S. stands at the award podium and tells the story of his brother’s death.
The cinematography by Thomas Hardmeier is breathtaking, making Montana look like a wide-open Garden of Eden and offering some truly interesting views of the freight train and train yards where T.S. passes the night. The 3D effects accompanying T.S.’s scientific musings and animations must have added a great deal of visual interest (I saw the 2D version), though the effect is starting to become a bit overdone in TV and film. Daydreams by both Gracie and T.S. are very amusing and a bit sad, particularly when T.S. imagines his family greeting his phone call from the road with relief and outpourings of affection.
Unfortunately, newcomer Catlett, though appealing with his nose full of freckles, isn’t a very good actor. He can deadpan pretty well, but his every attempt to cry and feel sad is forced. In the last of these attempts, it’s pretty clear from the way the film was cut that he either was induced to produce a tear after many attempts or went the fake tears route. However, his narration takes us through the film quite well, and he is very believably intelligent. I have to think Bonham Carter was cast based on her fantasy characters in Tim Burton films and the Harry Potter series; she used to be a pretty good actress who did interesting things, and I wish she’d move away from these quirky parts if she can. Wilson is delicious as a typical teen lost among the Addams Family. Rennie not only doesn’t get much to do, but he doesn’t even get a first name. I do want to offer kudos to Jakob Davies, who manages to be a presence of some consequence even as a ghost. He says what we only think when T.S. is subjected to tests by the incredulous adults who literally want to pick his young, bright brain: “So you let them wire you up like a lab rat!”
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet isn’t a perfect film, and it doesn’t really burrow into the grieving process the way another thoroughly humane family film, Tiger Eyes (2013), does, but it is a visually stunning, entertaining film loaded with sight gags and some genuine adventure. When the Weinstein Company acquired the distribution rights to the film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the highest-profile deals inked at Cannes.” Rumor has it that Jeunet was punished for not agreeing to the cuts the company wanted with a very limited release—I saw it at the only screen in Chicago showing it—and no publicity that I’m aware of. In addition, perhaps Americans just won’t buy a gentle film without swearing, sex, or exploding anything to entertain the kiddies jacked up on sugar from the theatre concession stands. But the shabby treatment this film received makes its certain failure at the box office a self-fulfilling prophesy.