Published Apr 09, 2015In many ways, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is the follow-up to Amelie that Jean-Pierre Jeunet's more conventional crossover fans have been waiting for. Where A Very Long Engagement was too epic, deliberately paced and depressing — although, arguably superior — for those looking to experience the whimsy of Jeunet's particular brand of stylization and Micmacs was too strained and insincere, Spivet has that perfect blend of heart-warming charm, idiosyncrasy and tragedy. It's the embodiment of what might happen if Wes Anderson was less concerned with nostalgia and set dressing and more concerned with exploring what it means to be alive.
Initially, it's almost too cutesy, though. The titular T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is an oddball child genius. He's an inventor that details his familial peculiarities through voiceover, painting his distant father (Callum Keith Rennie) as a modern cowboy and his distracted mother (Helena Bonham Carter) as an obsessive scientist. In a roundabout way, it's revealed that T.S. had a twin brother (Jakob Davies) that passed away somehow. The pain of this is present at first, seen mostly through the cold manner in which the family interacts, but isn't fully realized until T.S. begins his journey cross-country solo towards the Smithsonian, where he is to receive an award for inventing the perpetual motion machine.
Jeunet pulls out his usual array of visual trickery, utilizing in-screen animations, expressionist cinematography and wildly colourful mise-en-scene to capture the excitement of youthful discovery. It's an effective demonstration of form matching content, giving the audience the sense of wonder that T.S. experiences while encountering an array of strange characters on his journey of discovery.
It's important to note that Spivet is more than playful visuals, though. While the road trip template is quite self-explanatory, using a trip as a metaphor for forced introspection, the themes become increasingly complex as the destination approaches; T.S. has complex feelings about the loss of his brother, and the reasoning behind his familial disconnect is as heartbreaking as it is identifiable. Jeunet is careful to balance the harshness of a cold world — Spivet is ultimately exploited by the media machine — and despondency of loss with the idealized and fascinated perspective of a child, but in doing so, he doesn't patronize or simplify.
While some of the later speeches and voiceovers do manipulate emotional reactions, ensuring that few will leave the theatre with dry eyes, they're also apropos for the structure and format of what is ostensibly a very mature film for the entire family. At the end of it all, despite all of the worldly disappointments and painful experiences that comprise his journey, there's hope for T.S. that, "Maybe someday, I'll go back to snapping at fireflies, too."