I have a soft spot in my heart for director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his films. Due to the fact that I am a massive fan of his 1994 film “The City Of Lost Children”, I actually named my first daughter after the main character in that film; Miette. However, recently his films just haven’t grabbed me like they once did. I am first to admit that I miss his darker style that he shared with co-director Marc Caro in the early films they made together, but even though his newer films are more light-hearted I always look forward to the latest work from Jeunet. “The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is just that, and judging from the promotional material for the film, it appears that this is yet another film of whimsy and charm from this talented Frenchman.
T.S. Spivet is a young ten year old boy who lives on a ranch with his mother, father and teenage sister in Montana. He is a bright and intellectual boy with knowledge well beyond his young years, in fact his intelligence eclipses most of the adults he is in contact with. He is a big fan of science and in his quest for scientistic discovery, he designs an invention that can illustrate the phenomenon known as “perpetual motion”. His design ends up winning a prodigious award, where T.S has to collect his prize in Washington D.C in person. Due to the fact he is so young in age, he is weary of revealing his true age and identity, in case it deems him ineligible to accept his prize. The fact that he is also the black sheep of his family, he knows that no-one will understand the significance of such a prize, and as such T.S. decides to take the journey from Montana to Washington D.C by himself. We follow the boy on his journey as he leaves his house in secret and attempts to make it to the nation’s capital. However, if he ends up succeeding, he then has to work out how to explain how a ten year old boy came up with such an invention.
This is a strange movie; it is technically a very well made film, but from an emotional standpoint, the film is ultimately benign. I really wanted to love this film, but I just didn’t feel anything for the characters in the film at all. As is the norm for a Jeunet film, “The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is a stunning looking film with glorious visuals and an extreme use of colour. Jeunet’s choice to use the colours of yellow, green and particularly red, is extremely bold and it works to great effect. The film is very stylized because of these colours but because of this, never comes across as reality. There were numerous times in the film that Jeunet’s camera moves reminded me of films from his past, particularly “Amelie”, but sadly this film had none of that film’s charm.
The problem with “The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is that the film never soars. It is consistently one paced, which is never a good thing. You always feel it is building to a grander moment and yet, it never does. Also the whole tone of the film seems considerably off. Although my synopsis above does not reveal as such, T.S used to have a twin brother, Layton, who sadly a year prior lost his life to an accidental gunshot wound. Although Layton is barely in the film, the weight of his passing is felt throughout and is heavy on T.S’s shoulders who feels he is to blame for his brother’s death. So we have a story filled with melancholy that has strangely been presented via the use of whimsy, and as such the two styles clash and actually cancel each other out. Whilst I understand that the light and fun tone is needed to best present T.S’s boundless imagination, and this is where Jeunet shines his brightest, but it is the darker undercurrent that ends up getting neglected and thus the movie loses its heart.
When T.S finally does make it to Washington, the story takes a sudden and abrupt turn as T.S is sudden exploited by the adults around him for their own gain. It just seems to come out of nowhere and is never convincing in its portrayal. It is also never really explained what the adults want out of the boy and why they are exploiting him so. Especially in a world like today, a scientific discovery is not something that would get the attention it deserves, so it seems strange that they treat the boy as they do. Also the scene that takes place at the talk show, is cringe inducing, even though it does include the film’s best and most real emotional exchange between T.S and his mother. While no doubt condemning these types of talk show hosts that we are inundating with these days, it is done in such an obvious and shallow way, with the talk show host being a total caricature.
In terms of acting, everyone is competent but that is it. No one stands out with the exception of Judy Davis and sadly it is for the negative. She is terrible in her role, and so over the top with she has a penchant of doing from time to time, and again her character is a total caricature, never once showing an honest emotion. She is also at the centre of the film’s worst and most baffling moment when she fires an expletive towards the young boy she is in charge of. It is such an odd moment that has no justification for being in the film. In fact, I was stunned when it happened and couldn’t believe I had heard what I had heard.
For a road movie to succeed, the characters that our main character meets up with on his journey have to be interesting, and yet again, they are not here. While it does give Jeunet the chance to cast his regular muse, Dominique Pinon, in the role of a drifter named “Two Clouds”, his scene with T.S just falls flat like most of the film.
Overall, while I thought the film looked amazing and had the imagination that only Jean-Pierre Jeunet could supply, ultimately “The Young And Prodigious T.S.Spivet” falls emotionally flat. It is a film that has been expertly made but is ultimately anaemic in a dramatic sense and a tone that is all wrong for its melancholic story. Its biggest crime is that the film should have been so touching and even heartbreaking but ends up meaning very little. Sadly, “The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is a major disappointment.