Fanciful style trumps story in ‘T. S. Spivet’
The films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet are often more about style than story. Sometimes, the combination of the two is wildly felicitous, as in his beloved Amelie, or his mesmerizing A Very Long Engagement. And sometimes, the story doesn’t quite live up to Jeunet’s always unique and inventive composition, which is the case with The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet. But even if it never quite comes together as a whole, the film is full of the charming little epiphanies and percolating stylistic touches that make it a must-see for fans of Jeunet.
The director’s source material this time should be a perfect fit. First-time author Reif Larsen’s 2009 book, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, is a genre-busting experiment in storytelling that combines text with illustrations, scientific diagrams, calculations, maps, and other visuals supposedly drawn by the story’s pre-teen hero in the course of his adventures. The book’s winsome images, along with the storyline about a genius boy from Montana on a solo cross-country trip to accept a prestigious award from the Smithsonian Institute must have appealed to Jeunet’s highly developed sense of whimsy.
Ten-year-old T (for Tecumseh) S (for Sparrow) Spivet (Kyle Catlett) lives in a rambling farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere in Divide, Montana. He says his taciturn, lasso-swinging cowboy dad (Callum Keith Rennie) was “born 100 years too late.” His mom (Helena Bonham Carter) is an easily-distracted entomologist who’s obsessed with discovering a species of beetle so rare that it may not even exist. Teenage sister, Gracie (Niamh Wilson), is fed up with her boring life and addicted to the Miss USA pageant.
Until recently, T.S. also had a non-identical twin brother, Layton (Jakob Davies), a mini-cowboy like his dad and the apple of their father’s eye—until an accident with his Springfield rifle took his life. But T.S. takes after their mom, full of scientific curiosity, and always drawing maps and graphs and pseudo-scientific calculations to try to make sense of every aspect of his life. After sitting in on a lecture at a nearby university, T.S. accepts the challenge to create a perpetual motion machine, “the Holy Grail of inventors.”
One day, T.S. gets a phone call from Miss Jibsen (Judy Davis, in imperious/neurotic mode), a high-placed undersecretary at the Smithsonian. The plans he submitted for his device have just won the Baird Award for the popular advancement of science—although everyone assumes he’s a grown-up. Invited to speak at the gala awards dinner in Washington, D.C., and, with his family preoccupied with their own concerns, T.S. packs a suitcase and hops a freight train heading east (by painting the signal light red, so the train has to stop).
Much of the story depends on steampunk-looking gears, gyros and fanciful plans, and Jeunet makes full use of them all in what you might call the margins of the movie—T.S.’s own drawings and fantasies, excerpts from his mother’s illustrated diary that he takes on the road, an Inside Out-type detour into Gracie’s cortex. There are many sly visual gags, including the moment when T.S., hiding out inside a motor home on one of the freight cars, escapes a guard’s detection by posing as one of the cardboard cut-outs propped up inside the window.
Jeunet-regular Dominique Pinon pops up as a railway hobo. But the closer T.S. gets to D.C., the less persuasive the story becomes—from a ride with a trucker (Julian Richings) that feels more ominous than comic, to the finale at a talk show, with Jibsen and the clownish host vying for control of little T.S.
It may be that the story itself ends with too much of a whimper (however sweet-natured), after all the clever storytelling. Or it may be that the whimsical sensibilities of Jeunet and his team (this is an international co-production shot mostly in Canada) don’t translate as well outside of his usual French setting, despite the American source material. But while his wacky humanism is less resonant here than usual, Jeunet’s fans might want to check it out—sooner than later—since it will probably only be at the Nick through Thursday, Aug 6.
THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET
With Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, and Callum Keith Rennie. Written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. A Weinstein Company release. Rated PG. 105 minutes. BOY GENIUS Kyle Catlett plays T.S. Spivet in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet,’ a genre-bending film adapted from Reif Larsen’s book ‘The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.’