There are a few things we lose when we transition from children into adults. Our infinite curiosity for every new thing we encounter. The near-superhuman adaptive abilities that allow us to quickly cope or get use to new or uncomfortable situations. The most devastating to me personally was the significant slowing of my metabolism, but I digress. Not every child is the same, or has the same experiences growing up, but most of them share these characteristics in varying degrees. Then again, T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) isn’t like most kids his age.
After a tragic accident involving his brother, T.S. retreats into himself, focusing on the construction of his scientific inventions to fill the emptiness. His parents are of no help, each doing the same thing to cope. His mother (Helena Bonham Carter) retreats to her fascination of beetles, while his father (Callum Keith Rennie) remains esoteric and reserved with his anachronistic cowboy demeanor. After winning an award for his invention, T.S. leaves home for Washington, D.C. without warning and hitchhikes the entire way there armed only with his wits, notebooks and a teddy bear. He’ll soon realize one of the hardest lessons of all: There is a difference between being lonely and being alone.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a colorfully-intoxicating visual style that is present in almost every one of his films. The use of vibrant colors and powerful pastels is used in contrast to the dark subject matter his films often handle. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet deals with child death in the family, and how each person copes with the loss and their own, self-inflicted guilt. Some embark on metaphorical journeys to find a new way to live, while others go on a physical journey in hopes of finding anything to fill the void of that great loss.
The quirky tone and whimsical elements are the perfect juxtaposition to the heaping piles of pathos that are in every cell (sometimes front and center, sometimes waiting just beneath the surface) of this film, waiting to ooze out of every scene like sap from a tree. Does that make this film sappy? At times it is a little overdone and verging on Lifetime special. There is the occasional heavy-handed use of sentiment, but thanks to cast, it comes off as more sincere than soppy most of the time.
Kyle Catlett is more than just an adorable face or a brother that would bravely travel to the spirit world to save his sister. In The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, Catlett shows a maturity and range that few adult actors can tap into. He needs this range to bring to life the complex character of T.S. Spivet. Spivet doesn’t outwardly display the usual childlike mannerisms, so we are meant to forget just how old he truly is. On more than one occasion, he is the most adult-like person in the room. His natural, youthful charm is counterbalanced by his serious demeanor. That makes the moments when we glimpse his childlike, emotional vulnerability all the more compelling. Helena Bonham Carter gives a controlled, emotionally humbled performance in her role as Spivet’s mother. She still has her signature quirk, but not to where it overwhelms the overall character, per usual.
Jeunet’s eccentric playfulness with the tone and pacing of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet may prove an unwarranted distraction to viewers unfamiliar with Jeunet’s style. The rest of us can easily appreciate Jeunet’s unconventional approach and focus on everything he did right, rather than dwell on the many, minor flaws.
RATING: ★★★★★★★ (7/10 stars)