‘I would have liked to be a daredevil but I knew I’d never live up to it.’
Entomologist Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter) is happily married but her academic workload and lifestyle could not contrast more with those of her husband (Callum Keith Rennie) who desires to live a simple cowboy life. Indeed his son notes that ‘My father was born one hundred years too late’ – he is quite content with a life devoid of twentieth century aspects, bar the odd vehicle. Their children also have very different pastimes and aspirations. Their teenage daughter has desires, in this media age environment, to be Miss America whilst the two boys, despite being twins, have very different hobbies. Layton likes to shoot things. T.S. (Tecumseh Sparrow) Spivet (Kyle Catlett) likes to invent things, a scientific inventor and experimenter who even has designed a means of dropping an egg safely from the Empire State Building, even if his attempts at scientific vigour are not appreciated at school by his fellow children… or the teacher. His latest invention is a sure-fire winner that could change the world, for T.S. Spivet has, despite his youthful age of ten, managed to solve the perplexing problem of perpetual motion, using a clever design involving a rotating magnetic wheel. Rather just a pipe-dream, the depths of his discoveries are realised when, having sent blueprints for his work as an entry for a scientific competition, he receives the prestigious Baird prize in science, to be awarded at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. (a long way across the country from Montana). Of course there are a few problems with this, largely because the Smithsonian are under the impression that the designer is significantly older and T.S. also has to figure a way to leave home and safely get to the capital in time to receive his award. So carrying his trust suitcase, full of essential items, he leaves the farm, bidding farewell to Tapioca, the beloved dog who has occasionally seems so depressed that he eats metal, and starts a journey across the country, unaware of the response he will receive when he gets there. The 5:44 train beckons, if he can reach it on time, get it to stop and get himself on board.
The structure for the central premise of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet takes the form of a road movie, albeit one which would better be described as a rail-road movie. T.S. hits the tracks to find a way of arriving at his destination without being caught and sent back home. As with many road movies, this is a spiritual as much as a physical journey – T.S. is coming to terms with the accidental death of his twin brother, a tragic incident and something that the entire family haven’t yet dealt with emotionally. Layton’s accidental death by a gunshot has a deep resonance for T.S.
And, as with any good journey, there are plenty of interesting encounters along the way. Thus T.S. meets a helpful Giant Hobo (Robert Maillet), an exceedingly pleasant hot dog lady and the strange Two Clouds (Dominique Pinon, the Jean-Pierre Jeunet regular), as well a hitching a truck ride with a photo obsessed driver. Will the Smithsonian declare him a hoax or take advantage of a media spree, declaring him, ‘Is to science what Mozart is to music?’
T.S. Spivet has been shot using the increasingly ubiquitous 3-D format but this has – fortunately – been implemented very well, the crisp visuals enhanced by its chapter definitions as lovely constructed 3-D art books which match the style and purpose of the film, as well as other visual devices such as maps, ropes strung towards the screen and even play swords enhancing the appeal of the format. This is a visually engaging film and also one that recalls many aspects of Jeunet’s other works, most notably The City of Lost Children (1995), Micmacs (2009) and Amelie (2001) as well as some of Terry Gilliam’s films, although Jeunet’s style is, of course, distinctly his own. There are elements that ensure that the story maintains a balance between a sense of adventure and wonder but also emotion and understanding.
A wild, beautiful and fantastical film about science, the media, modernity relating to the past with an family of eccentric characters T.S. Spivet provides plenty of laughs and, occasionally, a few tears. Liars and myth-makers (although not in a bad way) are Jean-Pierre Jeunet staples, along with fantasists who have their feet firmly planted within a bizarre reality, rather like Gilliam’s eponymous baron in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)). Like Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) this is a film about a child but is appealing not only to children but to adults who wish to enjoy childish wonder and invention.