The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
The title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s second English language film and second adaptation announces a fundamentally quirky beast. It is, therefore, right up its director’s oeuvre. His films – even Alien Resurrection, though not so much A Very Long Engagement – are infused with quirk. He has a style and sensibility that is either far too much – all tics and affectations and asides – or delightfully offbeat and distinctive, depending on one’s inclinations. I tend to the latter, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the trailers for The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet; if there’s one thing I would bank on bringing out the worst in Jeunet, it’s a story focussing on an ultra-precocious child. Yet for the most part the film won me over. Spivet is definitely a minor distraction, but one that marries an eccentric bearing with a sense of heart that veers to the affecting rather than the chokingly sentimental.
Appreciation for Jeunet’s milieu is not entirely dependent on one’s inclinations. His last picture, Micmacs, left me cold, evidencing what happens when he relies purely on mannered technique, performances and gags, with nothing in support. It’s his most indulgent film, the one where it’s easy to say, “This is where the co-director of Delicatessen would eventually finish up, his worst excesses allowed to burgeon unchecked”. In between we had his macabre, sumptuous fantasy City of the Lost Children, Alien Resurrection (one I’ve warmed to over the years, although I quite understand why the majority haven’t) and his masterpiece Amélie (I have seen A Very Long Engagement, but it warrants the least likely criticism I’d expect to level at a Jeunet film; it’s rather forgettable).
Amélie remains the perfect marriage of Jeunet’s captivating visual style, peculiar characterisation (housed within the transcendent Audrey Tautou), strangely complementary facility for whimsy and the sardonic, and rhythmic, musical approach to editing (the score by Yann Tiersen is an all-time great). Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried too much about Spivet since Amélie, although it is a wilfully upbeat confection with a positive destination that is never in doubt, is also resistant to schmaltz and tear-jerking. Jeunet is quite capable of moving the viewer, but he’s too sprightly and quick-witted to become treacly or cloying.
So it is with Spivet, which may not share Amélie’s cinematographer (Bruno Delbonnel has recently worked with the Coens and Tim Burton) but Thomas Hardmeier lends the proceedings a similarly rainbow worldview. In particular, the landscapes are striking and luminous, be it the Spivet family farm or the views from the train aboard which T.S. hitches. Even Chicago’s industrial wasteland takes on a transformative, magical atmosphere. Jeunet is a director who, like Gilliam, Dante, Burton and Verbinski, is often only so many paces away from creating live action cartoons (and for some of those, the overlap has at times been overt). While most of these filmmakers are quite upfront about their skewed worldviews, Jeunet is particularly partial to presenting his awry vision in the apparel of idiosyncratic frivolity concealing darker more disturbing forces within. Not usually enough to overwhelm (although Lost Children gets close at times) but enough to catch the darkness unmistakably.
It’s true that there is an air of familiarity about the general circumstance of Spivet. The child on a quest in an exaggerated environment recalls the likes of North, while the narration brings to mind the likes of Babe, Amélie and Pushing Daisies (and even Raising Arizona, in the way the Jeunet leads us to visual punchlines). Reif Larsen’s list of potential adaptors included Wes Anderson, and it would be easy to picture. Anderson too likes his visual asides and punctuation points, and Spivet is replete with them. I’m doubtful that he would have embraced the workings of the young inventor’s mind as wholly, however. And when we see T.S. debate the different routes to answer the telephone it summons the heightened planning sequences beloved by Edgar Wright. Jeunet approach seems like a sure fit; the visual representations that reflect the book’s layout (about two-thirds of it include some form of drawing, T.S.’s depiction, ordering and mapping of his environment) are seamless and complementary.
Ten-year-old T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is a precocious prodigy with particular abilities in the scientific field. Even his teacher takes issue with his towering intelligence (“You think you’re smarter than everyone else, don’t you?” he remonstrates as T.S. proffers a copy of Discover magazine in which his essay has been printed). He lives on the Montana Copper Top ranch with his taciturn cowboy dad (the ever-excellent Callum Keith Rennie), beetle-studying mum (Helena Bonham Carter, taking a break from Burton wackiness and diving into Jeunet wackiness) and beauty pageant-obsessed sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson). His monozygotic twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies) the apple of his rugged outdoor-loving father’s eye, died in a shooting accident for which T.S. blames himself. T.S. set himself the task of finding the key to perpetual motion (“Such a machine defies the laws of the universe”) and when he learns that the Smithsonian museum has awarded him the Spencer Baird Award for his perpetual motion machine he decides to travel cross-country to receive it, leaving his self-involved parents and sister behind.
It’s fair to say the first two-thirds of Spivet are the superior sequences; the introduction to T.S.’s farm and family, and then the journey itself. He travels first by train, ingeniously encouraging it to stop for him by painting the signal light red with a marker. Then he then hitchhikes the final leg (Jeunet’s world is one where a boy may travel without fear, certainly of the predatory variety). On the way, T.S. meets Jeunet’s actor talisman Dominique Pinon (as rail yard teller of tall tales Two Cloud) and veteran Ricky (Julian Richings), who offers offhand caustic moment comments (“Join the army, see the world, meet interesting people and kill them”); Jeunet delights in these kinds of moments.
When T.S. arrives to take his prize, the picture embarks on a less interesting detour as Judy Davis’ flinty G.H. Jibsen sees T.S. as her ticket to fame and glory; he is subject to inconclusive tests (“Thank you for evaluating my brain, Judy”) and put on television. If this is sometimes bumpy going, fortunately it does not lessen the impact of T.S.’s speech in which he gives an account of the death of his brother (the first such we have heard). He discards discussion of his invention during the preamble; we learn that it will last 400 years, so it isn’t really a perpetual motion device. When he appears on a TV chat show, he even offers a sop to the capitalists, claiming that, even though a much bigger machine could indeed power the studio, the outlay on light bulbs would still represent a significant cost. Catlett has the slightly the nerdy confidence of a young(er) Jesse Eisenberg and he isn’t always nuanced in his delivery, but he’s genuine and restrained in the scene where he explains his brother’s demise to the rapt audience and then again later when his mother informs him it wasn’t his fault, “What happened just happened” (Carter is also strong here, dropping the peculiarities that have inhabited her post-Burton career).
The speech encapsulates the film’s twin themes of immortality and loss, expressing with appreciable subtlety that T.S.’s invention is a means to repair his world after the loss of his brother, through the only means he knows how (scientific application). In other hands (those of Chris Columbus, say) lines like “Thank you for taking care of me, you’re one of the best families in the world” could infest the film like sugary syrup, but T.S. gives off the air of the even-handed, slightly reserved boffin; offputtingly obsessive and aloof to many, T.S. balances this with unlikely empathy and insight. Jeunet ensures that less is more where emotions are concerned; his reconciliation with his mother is disarmingly brief, before it’s time to move on, and his father (“Can’t get horse shit from a cricket”) needs only give him a piggyback (well, that and punch TV presenter Roy’s – Rick Mercer – lights out) to show how much he cares but can’t normaly express.
While it’s the case that one is frequently reminded of a junior Amélie, with the flights of fantasy (Inside Gracie’s Cortex is particularly wonderful, as is the moment where faithful hound Tapioca says farewell while not taking his eyes off the TV), analyses of the ways of the world from its protagonist’s point of view (fake and genuine smiles, his observance of how his “Day and night” parents touched hands in the hallway “as if secretly exchanging a few seeds”), and bittersweet flamboyance, Jeunet’s film about “the Leonardo of Montana” offers much to enjoy on its own merits. Jeunet should probably trying stretching himself a bit, though, even within his own boundaries, if he is to avoid the much-maligned fate of Tim Burton (playing in a well dug sandpit and unearthing nothing new).