Young and Prodigious and Slightly Annoying
We have reached that moment in the cinema year where all the major studios have flopped out their first big blockbusters of the summer and an uneasy truce reigns: no-none wants to risk over-saturating the market by releasing another big film just yet, so while these tentpole releases dominate the cinemas, hoovering up the audience's disposable income, the only real activity concerns limited-appeal genre movies, low-expectation filler material, and counter-programming. It is this third category into which we should probably put Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet.
Jeunet has been making intricate and visually-meticulous borderline-fantasy films for over twenty years now – the incongruous movie on his CV is 1997's Alien Resurrection, which is virtually the textbook example of a talented European arthouse director being crushed to the bosom of Hollywood, with results that neither party was ultimately very happy with. This latest film finds him in much more typical territory.
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a very American film in some ways, but still not really a conventional one. Kyle Catlett plays the title role of a ten-year-old genius living on a remote ranch in Montana with his somewhat unorthodox family. His father (Callum Keith Rennie) is an unreconstructed cowboy who only says about three words a year. His mother (Helena Bonham Carter) is an entomologist, obsessed with finding new kinds of beetle. His sister (Niamh Wilson), apart from an obsession with beauty contests, is relatively normal. The family as a whole is struggling to come to terms with the accidental death of T.S.'s twin brother the previous year, but their various coping strategies seem to be forcing them apart rather than bringing them closer together.
Then, however – and this is the point at which you really have to decide whether you're going to go with this movie or not – T.S.'s groundbreaking design for a perpetual motion machine draws the attention of the big brains at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, and – the big brains not realising T.S. Spivet is only ten – invite him to the capital to receive an award and make a speech. Not wishing to inconvenience his family unnecessarily, the youthful boffin sets out on an epic journey across the continent alone and unassisted...
Well, look, here's the thing – this is never quite the film you think it's going to be. It has a slightly fantastical, magic-realist quality, with its spurious physics and a cameo from a talking dog, but at its heart it's slightly more down to earth than that. It looks like it's going to be a sort of road movie, about all the wacky adventures and strange personalities T.S. encounters on his journey from Montana to Washington, but again it isn't that, either – the film is divided into three clearly-designated chapters of roughly equivalent length, only the second of which is actually about the journey: the first sets the scene, and the third turns the proceedings into a somewhat predictable, sentimental fable about the shallowness of big city folk and the importance of family.
As you might expect, Jeunet mashes his foot hard down on the pedal marked 'quirkiness' and doesn't spare the whimsy, either. I suppose your mileage concerning this kind of thing may be different to mine, but I find a little goes a long way, and I found much of the early part of the film really irksome. Kyle Catlett's performance as young Spivet is remarkably assured, but he's not exactly an engaging screen presence and – how can I put this? – I found him sort of eminently-punchable rather than charming or cute. There's a bit where a hobo (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon) tells him a fairy tale about why only fir trees keep their leaves in winter, to which the lad's reaction is to start pointing out scientific inaccuracies in the story. Rather than someone I instantly warmed to, I found myself wondering instead whether he really was supposed to come across as someone with some kind of condition.
It doesn't help much that the director appears to be hurling a sizeable dollop of sentimentality into the mixture – one is clearly supposed to be overwhelmed with pathos and let out a big 'ahhhhhh' when the little fellow sets off for Washington lugging a suitcase which is nearly bigger than him. My instinctive response to this sort of thing is bared teeth, if we're honest, and as usual I found all the mannered visual sophistication got in the way of my emotional engagement with the actual story.
And yet, and yet: I would be lying if I said I thought this was a bad film, or that I hadn't enjoyed it at all. The landscapes in this movie are sumptuous, and the cinematography superb – it's a great looking film. And as the story picks up pace it does become rather less mannered and self-conscious in its storytelling, and a lot easier to like. There are some genuinely funny moments on the way, and the film has a sort of innocent optimism about it which is ultimately quite charming.
I'm still not sure who it's actually made for – the clash of a European sensibility with the classic Americana of much of the imagery remains noticeable, while what looks on one level like a family film nevertheless contains some slightly dodgy jokes and some unexpected F-bombs. The message that the film ultimately seems to be trying to deliver is not exactly innovative, either. This fable may not be genuinely fabulous, but there's enough going on here to make it watchable, if not exactly essential viewing.