'The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet': San Sebastian Review

Despite its flaws, international arthouse success seems assured for this amusing, poignant and visually stunning take on a child prodigy’s attempts to understand his weird family and the even weirder wider world.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's high profile 3D adaptation of Reif Larsen’s best-selling novel brings the San Sebastian film festival to a close.

The quirky charm, visual wit and melancholy undertow of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet translate joyously to the screen in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, a rare example of source and adaptation making a perfect match. This unlikely but involving tale of a child prodigy making his way across the United States to collect a reward for his brilliance has been designed to be delightful for parents and children alike, and is full of surprises on all levels, except, disappointingly, that of plot. The film's greatest achievement is in the way the accomplished 3D treatment -- this is Jeunet’s first foray into the format -- emerges entirely naturally, as the precise expression of a gifted child’s vivid imagination.

Jeunet’s own Amelie has become a reference point for a generation of arthouse cinemagoers, and Spivet should bring them back – though this time, with their children in tow. International arthouse sales seem assured, while U.S distribution is handled by the Weinstein Company, who will be hoping that the film’s skewed take on Americana will chime with the same audience wooed by Amelie itself and by Little Miss Sunshine.

Like Amelie, which came about as close to being a 3D film as a 2D film can be, Spivet is about how the imagination is the best instrument for making sense of the world. The film’s job is to make that imagination, in this case T.S. Spivet’s, credible and engaging, and Jeunet succeeds beautifully, with the difference that while Amelie’s imagination is romantic, T.S.’s is scientific.

The ten-year-old T.S. (played by Kyle Catlett: it stands for 'Tecumseh Sparrow', and at times, the quirkiness feels strained) is a child prodigy whose special scientific talents generally go unnoted by both his teacher, Mr. Stenpock (Richard Jutras) and his family, who live on the Coppertop ranch in a hyper-real Montana (actually Alberta in Canada) of greener-than-green prairie and bluer-than-blue skies, shot in swooningly beautiful relief and detail. His mother, referred to by T.S. as Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), is a beautiful, vivacious passionate amateur etymologist, his taciturn, father (Callum Keith Rennie), described as having been born a hundred years too late, is living the life of a cowboy. Frustratingly for her, T.S.’s sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) is the only non-eccentric member of the household. Absent is T.S.’s older brother Layton (Jakob Davies), killed in a never-discussed barn accident for which T.S. feels responsible, and who casts a long shadow over both the film and T.S.

T.S. is contacted by G.H. Jibsen (Judy Davis) at the Smithsonian Museum to invite him to receive a prestigious award for a perpetual motion machine he has created, thus solving at a stroke one of the great mysteries of science. Unable to collect it for obvious reasons, T.S. steals out one night to undertake the journey to Washington alone, mostly in an RV being carried on a freight train. It's on the RV that the film's classiest visual pun occurs.

Spivet's first half an hour is its best stretch. The viewer is bombarded by a jaw-dropping array of enjoyable 3D effects -- motes of prairie dust and scary stuffed animals are among them, but the most satisfying are those which spring from the character’s minds, such as T.S.’s device for dropping an egg without breaking. This has been imagined by both T.S. and by Jeunet with a precision which is then transferred unerringly to the screen by d.p. Thomas Hardmeier and stereographer Demetri Portelli (previously responsible for recreating another young boy’s imagination, that of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo). Larsen’s book is full of T.S.’s devices, designs sketches, and these too are reimagined there, lovingly given motion.

His oddball family itself is a subject of mystery to T.S., who understands most things but who cannot, like the viewer, comprehend how two such wildly different parents ever came together. One brief slow motion scene, showing that the film can tackle intimacy with the same attention as it can tackle spectacle, has the parents fleetingly brushing hands in a corridor “as though they were secretly passing seeds to one another”. In other words, not only is T.S. a brilliant scientist, he is also a hilarious observer of adult hypocrisies and a poet to boot -- his neatly-wrought little observations, the work of Guillaume Laurant, are one of the film’s minor pleasures.

It is testimony to the performance of Kyle Catlett, here making his feature debut, that their young prodigy comes over neither as insufferable or cute. Underneath everything, humanizing T.S., is the painful sense of loss and guilt he feels at Layton’s death: “Some things are just meant to die,” Dr. Clair sadly reassures T.S., but the young boy remains unconvinced. Indeed, Layton, a cowboy figure in his father’s mould, will poignantly appear to accompany the young hero at moments of crisis.

Other performances are fine, with Bonham Carter making something satisfyingly complex out of Dr. Clair, a feminist who’s ultimately frustrated at having to be a mother. But the one-note G.H. Jibsen comes increasingly to the fore towards the end of the film, and Judy Davis has to camp it up enormously to try and wring something extra out of that note. Indeed, her final, uncharacteristically clumsy utterance smacks a little of screenwriter desperation.

After T.S. escapes from the ranch, the visual hi-jinx settle down and the film becomes less interesting as he encounters first an aging sailor, Two Clouds (Dominique Pinon), who does an enjoyable enough turn and whose status as the standard purveyor of wisdom is neatly overturned by T.S., a truck driver (Julian Richings), and a golden-hearted hotdog stand worker (Dawn Ford); none add much to T.S.’s story, which is more about its beginning and its ending than the railroad and truck journey between the two.

With Spivet, Jeunet supplies an outsider’s vision of America which is more critical  than celebratory, and there's a fair amount of myth-puncturing on display –  among other targets, we find the suffocating weight of cowboy culture, the imagination-stifling conservatism of its institutions and, more obviously and clumsily, the dangerous distortions of reality TV, a filmic subject on which an embargo should surely now be placed. Luckily, Jeunet and Laurant have enough depth, wit and brio to import new life into such stale subjects. Denis Sanacore’s simple, affecting guitar score is used judiciously throughout.

Production: Epithete Films, Tapioca Films, Filmarto, Gaumont, France 2
Cast: Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Callum Keith Rennie, Niamh Wilson, Jakob Davies, Judy Davis, Julian Richings, Richard Jutras, Dominique Pinon
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Screenwriters: Jeunet,  Guillaume Laurant, based on the novel “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet” by Reif Larsen
Producers: Frederic Brillion, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Gilles Legrand, Suzanne Girard
Executive producers: Francis Boespflug, Tyler Thompson
Director of photography: Thomas Hardmeier
Production designers: Jean-Andre Carriere, Paul Healy
Costume designer: Madeline Fontaine
Visual effects supervisor: Alain Carsoux
Stereographer: Demetri Portelli
Editor: Herve Schneid
Music: Denis Sanacore
Not rated, 105 minutes