The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet isn’t a fairy tale. It isn’t a drama nor is it a comedy. It’s none of these things and at the same time it is all of them, while also being a strange bit of Americana shot in Alberta, Canada by French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Based on the book The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsens, the story follows the adventures young yet remarkable T.S. Spivet, a ten year old boy growing up on a farm in rural Montana with dreams of becoming a world famous scientist. We quickly learn that his dreams aren’t that far fetched, as he is indeed a prodigy worthy of much attention that is not bestowed upon him. His father, an introverted rancher, has little time for his son’s erudite pursuits, while his mother, played by Helena Bonham Carter, is too wrapped up in her own study of insects (morphology of beetles to be exact) to recognize her son’s brilliance. We soon learn that much of their indifference to their son has been brought on by the recent death of his twin brother (think Gord’s parents in Stand By Me). Spivet meets the age-old challenge of inventing a perpetual motion machine and submits it to the Smithsonian museum, which earns him the prestigious Baird prize. T.S. then sets out on his own, riding the rails to Washington D.C. to accept the prize at a reception in his honour.
Newcomer Kyle Catlett carries the film well in what could have easily been an obnoxious performance from an insufferable child actor. Canuck favourite Callum Keith Rennie gives an understated performance as the father, and Helena Bonham Carter just keeps getting better with age. It’s nice to see Judy Davis, who isn’t used nearly enough, plays the Smithsonian undersecretary, though her character takes an odd and unpleasant turn near the end. There is also a nice appearance by quirky Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon in one of the film’s more surreal scenes.
Spivet marks director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first foray into 3D, which is used effectively for the scenes set on the family farm in Montana, but like T.S’s wagon, it seems to get lost somewhere on the way, and by the time we arrive in Washington the effect all but discarded. Despite having its fair share of eye candy, which you can always count on Jeunet delivering, there is not much else that resonates in the film. It’s fun to watch, but afterwards you might be hard pressed to remember what was good about it apart from some of the visuals.
This is only his second English language film, (the first being 1997’s Alien Resurrection). When seen in English, Jeunet’s ties to American formalists like Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam become more apparent. There’s one sequence in particular, where Spivet is meticulously going down the list of items he needs to pack for his journey that seems like it could be right out of Moonrise Kingdom.
Almost everyone had that one movie that, as a kid, was one of your favourites and you assumed it was a standard in most households, like E.T. or the Harry Potter films, but later in life you found out that very few share your love for Mr. Boogedy. I can see Spivet being that movie for certain kids who will really connect to it if they discover it at just the right age and perhaps have interests similar to the protagonist’s scientific pursuits. 10 years from now, there will be an engineering major in his or her first day of University who is amazed that their new classmates have never heard of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet ! “It’s my favourite movie!”, but it’s not destined to be a classic for all.