The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet

Movie Information

The Story: An unusual, lonely 10-year-old runs away from home — and across the country — to accept a prize from the Smithsonian for inventing a perpetual motion machine. The Lowdown: Make all possible haste to catch this magical film because it will be gone by Friday. Everything about it is special.
Score:

Genre: Fanciful Comedy-Drama
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie)
Starring: Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Callum Keith Rennie, Niamh Wilson, Jakob Davis, Dominique Pinon, Rick Mercer
Rated: PG

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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35 thoughts on “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet

  1. Ken Hanke

    This marks a first. Never before have I out a review online before it appeared in print, but this remarkable film needs all the help it can get. I’d love to see it outfox the smart money that has it down as a throwaway that will only last the week. I don’t think it will happen. The showtimes aren’t good — 12:00, 4:40, 10:00 — and despite what is generally believed, online reviews do not have the clout that print reviews do. To save this film, it needs to do well on opening weekend — and the print review won’t show up till Tuesday afternoon.

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        Without advance print reviews to help spread the word, our reach is limited. As you noted, I think people most likely to see the film don’t look online for our writing.

        The Movie Guide page in this week’s Asheville Scene has a big color photo of young Mr. Catlett, which should somewhat help the cause. I found his performance to be one of the best bits of child acting I’ve seen in some time. His reward thus far for this effort? Playing the son in the bland Poltergeist remake. Perhaps Wes Anderson will find a use for him.

      • sally sefton

        I will listen. I will see this film based on your review and your ten best list. It is like getting a tip from a stockbroker. Though I have never taken a tip from one.

          • sally sefton

            It opens in an art theater on the 7th in Eugene Oregon and my daughter read your review and has agreed that this is a worthwhile thing to see. I doubt it will make it to the valley isle.

          • Ken Hanke

            I had forgotten you were on the mainland.

  2. Edwin Arnaudin

    As with Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo last year, T.S. Spivet is a burst of cinematic energy the likes of which audiences are rarely afforded. It was a while before I noticed a shot where the camera wasn’t moving – and even when static (a choice that’s more appropriate for the content each time it’s employed) the compositions and striking colors feel just as thrilling.

    I encourage everyone who loves movies to take time and see T.S. Spivet this weekend. You’ll be glad you did…and will join Ken and me in wondering why it wasn’t given the theatrical chance it deserves.

    • Ken Hanke

      Not only is all that true, but it’s one of the very few films I wish I could have seen in 3D. But it’s still a visual delight.

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        From a Hollywood Reporter article published this January, during which Jeunet questioned if the Weinsteins would ever release the film:

        “I don’t think 3D is good for action movies. When it’s fast, it’s just painful,” said Jeunet. “It’s much more for quiet movies.”

        During the evening, Jeunet also expressed concern about the use of 3D, saying Hollywood “uses 3D only to make more profits, and basically they don’t care about the quality. … Especially the owners of the theaters. It’s very dark, and they don’t care about the quality of the lamps. It’s a fight for every screen.”

        Jeunet asserted that 3D photography won’t break the bank. He said Spivet was made for a lean $33 million “and all of the 3D, including postproduction, was $1.5 million; it’s not so much.”

        • Edwin Arnaudin

          A 3D presentation of T.S. Spivet is the kind of thing I could see Ebertfest programming. I’d love to see it as originally intended as well.

        • Ken Hanke

          The best 3D I’ve seen is still Hugo, The Great Gatsby, and, oddly enough, My Bloody Valentine. Equally odd is the fact that the only one of those where the 3D is essential is My Bloody Valentine. The others work just as well flat.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            My standout 3D experiences are Life of Pi, the 48fps version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the Méliès flashback section of Hugo.

          • Ken Hanke

            I only saw Life of Pi flat and didn’t like it enough to want to see it twice. I saw The Hobbit in regular old 3D and that was more than enough.

  3. Xanadon't

    Wish I could’ve given this some support over the weekend, but I’ve now got my ticket and a turkey sandwich in hand and am about to see it. Are the numbers in yet? How’d it perform?

    • Ken Hanke

      It was brutal — $388 for the whole weekend. (And that’s still higher than the national average.) Glad you’re catching it now.

      • Xanadon't

        Well that’s a shame. There were 20 or so of us in theater 4 this afternoon. And not one got up before the credit roll shifted to its black and white scroll. Jenner has delivered another small treasure and it’s criminal to think how long it’s been kept buried.

  4. Xanadon't

    *sigh* I don’t know who Jenner is. But that Jeunet, now he’s good.

    • Ken Hanke

      I knew who you meant, The fact that there was good-ish and apparently pleased crowd makes me happy.

  5. Reeves Singleton

    Completely wonderful, and to a degree that I’m still struggling to find words with which to discuss it even more than two days later. All at once a beautifully melancholic work, a stunningly gorgeous piece of visual creativity, a fascinating celebration of Americana from an outsider’s perspective, and almost certainly my favorite movie of the year so far.

    • Ken Hanke

      And, sadly, a movie I must take out of the list of things still playing…

        • Ken Hanke

          It must be a dearth of product at that theater. Unless Winston-Salem is much different than I think.

          • sally sefton

            This movie is streaming on Amazon now. It is free if you have Amazon Prime.

            I am pretty sure that no one will see this message, but I thought I would mention it.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I bet it will soon land on Netflix Streaming as well. Many Weinstein titles do.

  6. FATIN AZZAHRA' BINTI KHAZINUDDIN .

    so what kind of critical thinking involved?

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