By Preston Wilder
T.S. Spivet’s mum (Helena Bonham Carter) has her issues, including an obsession with bugs that amounts to neglect of her family, but she gets the occasional moment of wisdom: “Beware of mediocrity,” she warns her son. “It is a fungus of the mind”. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Delicatessen in the 90s and Amélie in the 00s, couldn’t be accused of mediocrity; he takes years between films – his previous one was Micmacs in 2009 – and they all display his special brand of whimsical, manically inventive style. His faults lie elsewhere, in a sweetness that sometimes gets cloying and a tendency to cartoonish detail.
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet opens with scenes from a pop-up book and closes with stills from a Viewmaster; it’s that kind of movie. Our titular, 10-year-old hero (Kyle Catlett) lives on a big Montana ranch in the middle of nowhere, his initials standing for Tecumseh Sparrow (it’s that kind of movie). The family is quirky: entomologist Mum, as already mentioned, reticent Dad – an unreconstructed cowboy “born 100 years too late” – typical teenager Gracie, who has nothing but scorn for her dorky little brother, and T.S.’s twin brother Layton, a daredevil lad who’s the apple of his father’s eye. “I would’ve liked to be a daredevil too,” says a wistful T.S. in his wry voice-over, “but I knew I’d never be up to it” – so instead he invents a perpetual-motion machine and wins a prestigious prize from the Smithsonian. Young and prodigious, indeed.
It all sounds very cute – but there’s a catch, because Layton is dead, having been killed when a gun backfired during one of his macho exploits. Dad secretly blames T.S., and will barely even look at his remaining son; Mum is away with her insects; Gracie just wants out of this family. The film is surprisingly sad, which is what redeems its nudge-you-in-the-ribs surface. As in Amélie – which was really about its heroine’s inability to connect – the flights of fancy are self-conscious avoidance techniques, spun around the deliberate hole in the centre. If Mum or Dad would just hug our little hero, you feel, the film would be over; instead he goes on a road trip, riding a freight train to the Smithsonian (in Washington DC) to accept his prize.
The flights of fancy keep coming (oddly, the film isn’t being shown in 3D, which a stylist like Jeunet must’ve used quite creatively). A dog named Tapioca gets depressed, starts eating metal and later, unexpectedly, talks. Gracie is annoyed by T.S.’s success and we get a brief glimpse “Inside Gracie’s Cortex”, where a bunch of Gracies sit around a conference table discussing the unfairness of it all. For T.S. himself, everything is a science experiment, from packing a suitcase – “The Four Steps of Packing” – to deciding which route to take from the front door to the living room. He even has visual aids to describe Layton’s death, with an arrow pointing neatly to one of the points on the graph: “This was when it happened”.
That’s the point, however: T.S. – like Jeunet, perhaps? – has a touch of the autistic, keeping emotion at bay with science (at age six, we’re told, he calculated measurements in his colouring book instead of colouring). If this were a standard crowd-pleaser it would end in a great outpouring of emotion, and possibly a group hug; it doesn’t, but the second half is markedly inferior, getting a shrill performance out of Judy Davis as the museum director who markets T.S. into a mini-celebrity. Everything after our hero gets off the train is a bit clumsy, roping in cartoonish cops and eccentric truck drivers – then we’re in high society, casting the likeable whiz-kid as an innocent among phonies.
The first half, however – both the scenes in Montana and the train journey through small towns and vast mountain landscapes – has a definite something, a biting sadness that rescues the film whenever it threatens to dissolve into storybook kitsch. The best bit comes on the train when T.S., heady with the joy of escape, is so exuberant he irrationally starts reciting nothing in particular (“How glorious is the sun newly risen!”) to the passing world – then, just as irrationally, subsides. “A melancholy feeling came over me, which I couldn’t get rid of,” he notes unhappily, his brother’s ghost emerging from the shadows (not to haunt him, just to share the journey). There’s occasional poetry in this patchy movie, which is tougher – and more deeply felt – than it appears. T.S. Spivet is flawed, but not mediocre.
DIRECTED BY Jean-Pierre Jeunet
STARRING Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis
France/USA 2013 105 mins