THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET: Childlike Wonderment Illuminates For All Ages
A young Montana boy named T.S. Spivet leaves his rustic home and heads to Washington D.
A young Montana boy named T.S. Spivet leaves his rustic home and heads to Washington D.C. to accept an award at the Smithsonian Institute. Having stolen away secretly at the break of dawn, T.S. goes on a cross-country journey that opens his world-view and shines a new light on the troubling aspects of his life. Like most films about self-reflection, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is chock-full of sentimentality and emotional beats, but thankfully embraces the cerebral parts that make a life experience one worth remembering.
Diverting from the typically gothic and metropolitan films that he is known for, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet makes his first-ever kids movie. But since this is a Jeunet picture, it still manages to have his perfect timing with editing and features a dozen shots that are lit to perfection, all of which utilize the stark contrast of bright lights and heavy shadows. On the surface it’s a comedy with quirky characters and oddball situations, but the heart of Jeunet‘s vision is one that attempts to tackle the worst aspect of existence – human suffering.
T.S.’ home life is most likely idealistic for ranchers in Montana, with perfectly fenced in acreage and an ostensible source of stable income. T.S.’ cowboy pater familias, aptly named Father (Callum Keith Rennie), is a stoic man’s man in the vein of mythic American heroes like John Wayne. T.S.’ mother, Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), is the polar opposite of her husband, as she talks the day away studying, collecting and categorizing all manners of insects. Their eldest offspring is Gracie (Niamh Wilson), and like many girls in prime adolescence, Gracie loathes her current living situation. Rounding out the rest of the Spivet family are the fraternal twins, T.S. (Kyle Catlett) and Layton (Jakob Davies).
Things are going well in the Spivets’ lives until tragedy strikes. Ultimately, the conflict sends T.S. on his massive trek. As a boy of wonderment and awe of reality’s many marvels, T.S. is all brains and loves to experiment with it. But like many people in the real world and in fiction, his actions are duly the cause of his joy and pain. Thankfully, it’s from a passionate desire to uncover secrets of the universe that he is inevitably lead to a point of existential illumination and understanding. Luckily for T.S., he’s only 10 years old and gets to spend the rest of his time tinkering on inventions (if only we all could be so fortunate to have the meaning of life given to us before we even enter middle school).
There’s nothing short of spot-on casting in T.S. Spivet. The unknown Catlett manages to play the part of a brainiac prodigy in earnest without teetering over to being obnoxious. As usual, Helena Bonham Carter hits every bit of dialogue on the nose, and even Rennie gets the point of silence right with his body language and physicality. A Jeunet regular, Dominic Pinon, makes a cameo appearance that rightly sets T.S. to continue on with his journey.
Since this is a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, the cinematography is unbelievably gorgeous, capturing the performers in their raw and natural states. Jeunet is used to working mostly in studios with electric lighting, but here he lets the wide spaces of Montana and the last refuge of the Wild West guide the compositions and framing.
The Past vs. The Present
As previously mentioned, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a contrast to the majority of Jeunet’s other films. Unlike The City of Lost Children, Alien: Resurrection, Micmacs, and Delicatessen, Spivet relates more to Jeunet’s most respected film, Amélie, and his best and unfortunately forgotten masterpiece, A Very Long Engagement. Similar to Amélie, Spivet tries to connect all desire for visceral communion with other human beings. And even more in likeness to A Very Long Engagement, Spivet is aware of the dangers of mechanics and levers. As A Very Long Engagement separates its youthful lovers for years because of the Great War, Spivet’s own family is thrust into despair because of cogs, levers, wheels, and scientific inquiries.
This leads into the underlining motif of the picture – that industrialization has removed the last bits of humanity from the ground that it emerged from. Father is archaic and collects Frontier memorabilia and stores it in his man cave as a type of mausoleum to old freedom. He and T.S. couldn’t’ be farther apart in this regard, as T.S. is about taking corroded metal and intellectual ideas and turning them into working machinations. There’s also a strain between Dr. Clair and her children because she’s obsessed with cataloging and naming species of insects after their dead.
The spacial gap between parents and their offspring is what really causes the calamities and unconsciously pushes T.S. to fly the coop. Indicative in the title, T.S.’ existential coming-of-age story is reflective of the biblical parable, the Prodigal Son. Mirroring the nuclear family as told by Jesus, T.S. leaves his parents to pursue the world, and the only way to attain this is through constructing lies, causing him to physically suffer. It is only by returning to the fold and reintegrating back into the the past and what is preserved in history that T.S. finds his true calling and meaning. When that revelation comes it a pure moment of joy, where the former and recent connect in harmonious synchronicity.
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet should be counted amongst the best of children’s films. It is thoughtful enough without condescending to adults in the narrative, and maintains a warm enthusiasm found in minors. Jean-Pierre Jeunet has found the right balance between the contemplative and the entertaining, bordering on nothing short of raw honesty and proportionate emotion. T.S. Spivet is currently streaming for free on Amazon Prime in the US.
Of all Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films, which, in your opinion is the best? As I mentioned, I’m partial to A Very Long Engagement and even Alien: Resurrection has some killer production qualities. Let us know in the comments below.
(top image source: Gaumont)
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