Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest film The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is the kind of movie that might have enjoyed a respectable life on the art-house circuit. It’s really a wonderful film — everything you expect from Jeunet: playful filmmaking, a fanciful story, strange plot twists, delightfully eccentric characters and a lot more seriousness than appears on the surface. It’s also beautiful to look at. But instead of being handled by one of the smaller outfits, it was bought for U.S. distribution by the Weinsteins, who proceeded to sit on it for more than a year — and are now pretty much just dumping it on the market with no promotion. I understand that it’s not an easy film to market — no big name stars (apart from Helena Bonham Carter and Judy Davis, who don’t normally carry movies) and no effective brand name. What I don’t understand is why they bought it in the first place, but they did, and here it is, booked for three shows a day (12:00, 4:40, 10 p.m.) at The Carolina. It started Friday (July 31) and is only expected to play through Thursday. (With those show times, its one-week run is practically guaranteed.) I urge you to make time in your schedule to catch it.
The film is based on the novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by American author Reif Larsen, and seems to have been a natural fit for Jeunet, since the book incorporates diagrams and footnotes — the sort of thing that is perfect for the filmmaker’s style. It is, in fact, a marriage made in movie heaven. Plus, the story works for Jeunet as much as its style does. The title character, T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett), is a precocious 10-year-old misfit growing up in a dysfunctional household — a supremely dysfunctional household — on a ranch in Montana. T.S. has a fraternal twin, Layton (Jakob Davies), who as T.S. tells us “got all the height,” while T.S. got the brains.
They have an older sister, Gracie (Niamh Wilson), with ambitions of being an actress — or a singer or at least Miss Montana. The father (Callum Keith Rennie) is a taciturn out-of-his-time cowboy who specializes in quietly drinking, watching John Wayne movies, and not making eye-contact with T.S. (Layton is clearly the favored son). The mother, Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), is a self-absorbed entomologist — with a distracted style of parenting and almost supernatural knack for destroying pop-up toasters (hers more tend to go up in flames). The dynamic of the family changes dramatically when Layton is killed in an accident with a gun in the barn — something only T.S. witnesses and knows the truth about, and something that remains a constant undercurrent in the film.
The plot mostly involves what happens when T.S. invents a perpetual motion machine and is asked by staff at the Smithsonian (who have no idea he’s 10) to come to Washington to accept a prestigious award. Feeling more shut out by the rest of the family than usual, T.S. sets out to cross the country by hopping a freight train. This journey, the characters he meets on it, and his experiences in D.C. make up the greater part of the film. The story is slight and some of it is rather obvious, but this is a film that’s more about emotion and characters than about story. The focus is on our title character, his unnatural intelligence and his deep-seated sense of loneliness and feeling out of place. But T.S. Spivet is also a film that is interested in the depths of the rest of the family — depths that are only slowly revealed over the course of the film with a surprisingly moving delicacy. It is a movie that’s at once heart-warming and heart-breaking.
As filmmaking, it’s as amazing and inventive as anything Jeunet has done, which is saying a great deal if you think back over his filmography. It’s not just that the film is wildly inventive — which it is — it’s also that it’s stunningly beautiful. Jeunet — making his second English language film and his first film set in America (often shot in Canada) — has turned the U.S. into a fabulous, almost luminous picture-book fantasy meant to resemble things seen on a stereoscopic Viewmaster — only better. (That we aren’t getting the film in 3D is unfortunate. Even viewed in 2D, you can see how creatively Jeunet used the process.) This is simply a wonderful, very special film — one you should catch with all possible haste, since it won’t be around long. It may have been given a shoddy release, but I can guarantee it will be on my Ten Best list at the end of 2015. Do not miss this. Rated PG for thematic elements, language and some reckless behavior. (Note: though rated PG, the film — at least in the British print I saw — drops two or three “F bombs.”)
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.