This heart-warming tale of genius, loss, family, beetles and exploding toasters is another stylish triumph from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessen). Visually gorgeous and full of quirky invention, the film is also funny, smart and wise, just like The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet (the film’s full title) himself and features a winning central performance from 9 year old newcomer Kyle Catlett. Memorable support comes from Helena Bonham Carter and Judy Davis.
T. S. Spivet lives with his eccentric family on Coppertop Ranch in Montana. His initials stand for Tecumseh (Native American leader and folk hero) and Sparrow, capturing both the boy’s huge gifts and his quiet, kind nature. His mum (Helena Bonham Carter) is a scatty science boffin, obsessed by beetles. His strong silent dad has ‘the soul and mindset of a cowboy’. Sister Gracie is a typical teenager who ‘revels in the role of misunderstood actress’. Then there is his brother, Layton, a mini cowboy like his dad. We see the exuberant outdoor play of the boys – lassoing, shooting cans, carting – before TS tells us that Layton died in an accident and that nobody ever talked about it.
This family bereavement and its effect on the survivors gives the film depth and soul. It explains why TS’s parents rather neglect the boy genius in their midst. When a phone call comes from the Smithsonian Institute, he is ready for adventure. TS’s invention, the magnetic wheel, has won the Spencer Baird Award, and he is invited to attend a Gala ceremony in Washington and give a speech. If he stays in Montana, he narrates, he’ll go round in circles, like the flying bats on the ranch, and ‘only be the echo of myself’.
The film is divided into three sections – The West, The Crossing and The East – which maps out T. S. Spivet’s journey from Montana to Washington DC. Each section is introduced by a charming pop-up book title. Jeunet loves this kind of thing and has a steampunk sensibility for clockwork, puppets, ‘old tech’, homemade models and gadgets. Seeing it in 2D format, you can imagine the 3D version is a treat.
Like a seasoned hobo, TS cleverly boards a freight train and lives off his wits, through Wyoming, Nebraska and Chicago. He hides in a mobile home, and foxes the security guard by pretending to be a cardboard cut-out, next to cardboard mum and dad and plastic food. The model family – a laugh-out-loud scene from Jeunet. Although befriended by a grizzled old man (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon, looking like Seasick Steve), TS becomes homesick: ‘I had to admit it. I was not a careless drifter. I was a 10 year old boy’. He reads his mum’s scrapbook and diary and learns that she felt ‘like an empty house’ after Layton’s death and that she’s ‘not really there for TS anymore’.
Along the way, TS makes some profound observations. When skyscrapers appear, he says: ‘nature had vanished. How could men create so many right angles when their behaviour was so convoluted’. Watching rain on a window pane, he says ‘waterdrops always take the path of least resistance. With humans it’s the opposite’.
When he arrives at the Smithsonian Institute the film’s tone becomes more satirical, as TS is exploited by the unscrupulous Miss Jibsen (Judy Davis), treated like a lab rat and made-over for radio and TV. ‘He is to science what Mozart is to music’ says a TV presenter.
T. S. Spivet has a satisfying resolution and a perfect final image. Make sure you watch the ‘Viewmaster’ slide credits at the end, too, because they’re a treat.