There is a very inspired line early on in The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet that perfectly captures a glimpse of the magic this fascinating misfire aims at. "What if imagination started where science ended?" The words are uttered by a tired old British scientist (Mairtin O'Carrigan) giving a perfunctory lecture to a bunch of bored high-schoolers in Butte, Montana; it's the old story of endless optimism vs. backward-looking conservatism, progress vs. stasis, as seen through the eyes of 10-year old scientific whiz-kid Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett) who just happened to stumble on it and decides there and then to solve the conundrum of perpetual motion.
That opposition may also be that of the vanguard and the mainstream, and what makes it all the more intriguing is that it's being aired in a film by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose own work has often traded in nostalgia and retro whimsy visualized through state-of-the-art effects and techniques. For someone whose work is so grounded in a mythological past, his films have always been about moving on into your own story and learning to live in your own skin; this adaptation of Reif Larsen's 2009 novel may see him move from a folkloric idea of mid-century Paris to mid-century picture-postcard Americana, but there's more of an emptiness behind the facades here than in any of Mr. Jeunet's previous work.
Running away from the Montana ranch where he lives with his family, T. S. literally "rides the rails" to reach Washington, where he has been awarded a prestigious scientific prize by the Smithsonian (with no idea the winner is in fact a precocious boy wonder from the heartland). And the ten-year-old installs himself for the duration in an all-American RV carried on a flatbed car - the perfect materialisation of a certain American dream of modern freedom, shiny and picture-perfect, but in fact simply a showroom model inhabited by a cardboard family where nothing works as advertised, and that is traveling backward to the train's direction.
It's as if this backward-looking dream is carrying T. S. out of his comfort zone, though, refreshingly, he isn't so much a bullied or unloved kid as a boy whose resourcefulness allowed him to carve out his own world in an off-kilter family where everyone seemed to find refuge in their own worlds: an absent-minded entomologist mother (Helena Bonham Carter), a cowboy rancher father (Callum Keith Rennie), a gadfly celebrity-obsessed sister (Niamh Wilson). It's hard not to think of the Spivets' refuges as an escape and underlining of their own inabilities to deal with the void brought on by the tragic accidental death of T. S.' twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies, seen only in flashbacks), but thankfully the film avoids lazy editorialization.
I have to admit that, on a first try, I couldn't quite wrap my head around The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet - it seemed a strange tonal misfire, a film that veered far too wildly from visual busy-ness to a strangely heightened lyricism while running free with an adoring Americana as seen through the eyes of a European fan. (Not unsurprisingly, the film performed below par in France, was barely released elsewhere and was blackballed by the Weinstein Company in America, where it finally came out two years later on a perfunctory, unpromoted opening.)
On closer viewing, though, it dawned on me that it wasn't so much a problem of the film itself as of the viewer and of the expectations he brings into the film knowing it's from the director of Amélie and Delicatessen. It is an unmoored, all-over-the-place object whose open descent into satire in the third act (wasting the considerable talents of the all-too-rare Judy Davis as a conniving Smithsonian media handler) seems to be parachuted in from an entirely different movie. But at its heart lies a gentle story of a kid learning to deal with life the best way he can, shot with intelligence and a touching sincerity. The fact that T. S. Spivet was conceived in 3D probably explains why the film isn't as visually baroque and super-charged as the director's usual, which is all for the better, and its picture-postcard visuals are integral to the story's unfolding.
L'EXTRAVAGANT VOYAGE DU JEUNE ET PRODIGIEUX T. S. SPIVET
France, Canada, US, 2013
Cast Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Callum Keith Rennie, Kyle Catlett, Niamh Wilson, Jakob Davies, Rick Mercer, Dominique Pinon, Julian Richings, Richard Jutras, Mairtin O'Carrigan, Michel Perron, Dawn Ford, Harry Standjofski, Susan Glover, James Bradford
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; screenwriters Mr. Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant; from the novel The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen; cinematographer Thomas Hardmeier; composer Denis Sanacore; designer Aline Bonetto; costumes Madeline Fontaine; editor Hervé Schneid; effects supervisor Alain Carsoux; producers Frédéric Brillion, Gilles Legrand, Mr. Jeunet and Suzanne Girard, Épithète Films, Tapioca Films and Filmarto in co-production with Gaumont and France 2 Cinéma, in association with OCS, France Télévisions, Téléfilm Canada, CBC, Movie Central and The Movie Network
Screened August 24th 2015, Lisbon, DVD