Feature Film: The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Amelie and Delicatessen, returns with a story of a ten-year-old genius who travels across a US state to collect a scientific prize
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, one of the most visually striking Parisian directors in cinema, offers us something new with his adaptation of Reif Larsen’s “The Selected Works of T.S Spivet”. Indeed, this is a book that could have been written with Jeunet in mind to one day direct; his eye for colour and character brings this story to life and he strikes a balance between a Hollywood formula and his distinctive French sense of humour that will satisfy fans of Amelie and The Mic Macs, while reaching out to a new audience altogether.
The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet follows its ten-year-old lead (Kyle Catlett) as he treks from his ranch in Montana to Washington, (leaving nothing behind but a note for his colourful, disparate family) in order to collect the prestigious Baird Prize at the Smithsonian Institute for his invention of a perpetual motion machine. Little do they know that this genius is actually a ten-year-old boy who is carrying a burden heavier than that of his suitcase.
Rarely has a film’s lead role been so well handled by such a young actor. Kyle Catlett delivers a touching and convincing turn as T.S, and somehow managed to balance the high demands of this production with those of a new American TV series (The Following) he was shooting at the same time. During one scene, his expression brought a tear to my eye as he enters his deceased brother’s bedroom, untouched since the day of his tragic death, to say a final farewell before his travels. This is a character well thought out and well researched; his obsessive attention to sometimes monotonous detail and his tendency to take things literally often leads people to misunderstand his intellect, and we feel his frustration keenly with each character he meets.
These characters are a colourful complement to the strong lead of T.S, and no less thought was put in to them than to T.S himself. Helena Bonham Carter is T.S’s distant, scientific mother, a contrast to her cowboy like husband (Callum Keith Rennie), “born three hundred years too late” as T.S observantly puts it. Then there is his sister (Niamh Wilson), a more typical teenage girl, embarrassed by her family and, as cut scenes to a hilarious internal board-room like debate raging inside her brain reveals, she is just as desperate to escape the isolated existence of her life on a Montana ranch as is T.S. This is where Jeunet thrives; whether Amelie Puolain (Amelie) or Clapet (Delicatessen), his characters always leave their mark, embodying the very spirit of his films. It has become a signature of Jeunet’s and one that helps ascend The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet to more mature heights.
It was interesting to see how Jeunet’s distinctive style translated to an American setting. Present are his unusual characters in unusual circumstances in an almost insular universe. His emphasis on colour also remains, with a pastel-like vibrancy instead of the golden warmth pervasive in his earlier works, Jeunet keen to let the panoramas speak for themselves, and with success. The first time collaboration between Jeunet and cinematographer Thomas Hardmeier, (Chrysalis, Taxi Service) pays off, Hardmeier adding something a little new with the inclusion of 3D. If you are like me, someone whose knee jerk reaction is to instantly revolt against the use of 3D in film, then I hope you will still give it a chance, for it is carefully and creatively employed. It adds to the film’s believability and to a feel-good neutral gear that will settle well with audiences.
Ultimately, the theme on which everything rests is that of perpetual motion embodied by T.S’s invention, a wheel that never stops spinning. It mirrors beautifully his need to find a way to keep on moving forward in the face of grief and guilt. To never look back is against human nature, as perpetual motion is against the very laws of physics, and as the Spivet family discover, their unresolved dualities will have to come full circle before they can move on. This is what pushes The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet beyond the confines of just another feel-good adaptation. Jean-Pierre Jeuent’s talent for capturing the human spirit is alive and well, and here he delivers something mature, thoughtful and ultimately well balanced.