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Jeunet’s Disarmingly Imaginative ‘The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet’ Analyzes American Duality with Dark Undertones and Awe-Inspiring 3D Cinematography

Jeunet's Disarmingly Imaginative 'The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet' Analyzes American Duality with Dark Undertones and Awe-Inspiring 3D Cinematography

Galloping
into America’s heartland on a one-of-a-kind mechanical horse forged out
materialized magical-realist fantasies, and wearing idiosyncratic boots drenched
in saturated hues, French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet hand-crafted an adorably
bittersweet and disarmingly imaginative odyssey in his most recent feature.
Adapted from Reif Larsen’s debut novel, “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is imprinted with
the director’s unmistakable stylistic signature and it’s thematically in sync
with most works in his singular oeuvre. His whimsical eye for composition, production design, and overall
aesthetic are magnified by the use of 3D cinematography in a story that touches
on the duality of American identity via a heartwarming title character.

There was no
one between than T.S. Spivet to serve as Jeunet’s exploratory vehicle into the
United States, and given the filmmaker’s incomparable track record of visually
marvelous journeys, he has the ideal sensibilities for the task of turning the
book’s pages into live-action wonders. T.S. (Kyle Catlett) is a 10-year-old prodigy living an
isolated Midwestern ranch with his atypical family. Like the director’s most widely beloved character, Amélie Poulain, T.S.
also feels disconnected from his parents after a tragic accident
that killed his dizygotic twin Layton (Jakob Davies).

Obsessed with discovering a rare insect known as the “tiger monk beetle,”
his mother Dr. Claire (Helena Bonham Carter) is emotionally out of touch with the family and finds refuge in her possibly-purposeless search. Meanwhile,
T.S.’s father (Callum Keith Rennie), a straight-faced macho cowboy, is even less expressive. He refuses to
discuss the incident or reassure his remaining son that he shouldn’t feel guilty. The boy’s sister, Gracie (Niamh Wilson), is also not a reliable a source
of comfort,as she a teenager captivated by the appeal of beauty pageants
regardless of how these objectify women – a fact that her mother constantly
reiterates.  

Finding
practical uses for abstract scientific concepts is T.S.’s strength, yet his
extraordinary intelligence also alienates him from his loved ones. Not only
does he live near the town of Divide, Montana, but his whole existence is
marked by a divisive duality that places him at the intersection between
academic brilliance and the unassuming rural lifestyle. His brother Layton was
a country boy like his father, and together they enjoyed shooting their rifles,
riding horses, and working the land. Being T.S.’s interest the opposite of that
and more in tune with his mother’s pursuits, he feels ostracized.

Instinctively, when the Smithsonian’s Baird Award comes
calling after Tecumseh
Sparrow – which is what
T.S. stands for – designs the first-ever perpetual motion machine, the young
inventor has to lie about his age to Ms. Jibsen (a deliciously evil Judy Davis), the museum’s fame-hungry
representative. Without informing his clueless family, T.S. embarks on a cross-country
voyage to claim the prestigious decoration. Carrying a suitcase full of
essential research tools, the skeleton of a dead sparrow that is said to have
been found on the floor when he was born, a teddy bear, and his mother’s diary,
the young Spivet is ready to catch a train ride This is by far not a conventional
children’s adventure.

By employing his masterful ability
to embed detailed imagery into all elements within the frame, Jeunet transforms
every person and landscape T.S. 
encounters in his trip into an opportunity to juxtapose two versions of
America. There is an America that thrives on innovation and another one that
prides itself in tradition. The tiny hero leaves behind endless grasslands for geometrically
perfect skyscrapers but finds himself perpetually stuck between the place where
he needs to go to fulfill his potential and the place he calls home. 

Polarizing concepts are not only visible in T.S. complex personal
struggle, but they are also reflected in the way the director handles the risky
tone of the film. Moments that veer into sentimental territory are countered balance
with dark undertones that might prove harsh for some viewers, but which are
necessary to paint a sophisticated picture of childhood without relying on
simplistic and Disney-approved conventions. Death is real, guns are dangerous
objects, parents are imperfect beings, and those who dare to challenge the norm
are often misunderstood. But for all its truthful blows, Jeunet’s film is
always adorned with gleeful innocence. Even its occasional plot missteps are
redeemed by the genuinely delightful protagonist and the filmmaker’s decision
to stay true to his playful nature.

It took
a while for Jean-Pierre Jeunet and 3D cinematography to come together, but now
that it’s happen it’s clear this technology was created for his wildly
inventive mind. As T.S. dishes out incredibly specific facts about his world,
nature’s processes, or unbelievable discoveries, these come to life in the form
of animated diagrams that are prime material for cleverly used 3D. Though “The
Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is as astonishingly beautiful in 2D, when
watched through the stereoscopic viewers (the more technical denomination for 3D
glasses that T.S. would probably use), the artist’s intention is even more spectacular.
It’s a luscious visual delicacy with a vibrant color palette and endless surprises
along the way.

Inspired
and in full form, Jeunet’s eye-popping elegance is unforgettable, but it
wouldn’t be as touching without the correct sparrow looking for his pine tree
thousands of miles away.  Catlett’s
performance is endearing, offbeat, and without the slightest sign of
cynicism.  T.S. is not an
improbably naïve caricature, but a compassionate kid troubled by burdens beyond
his age. He feels guilty over his brother’s death and doesn’t believe his
father will ever love as much. Those emotional turn him from an inapproachable
erudite into a child in need of guidance not from books but his unconditional
family.

As the eternally distracted Dr. Claire, Bonham Carter delivers a
handful of high notes, as does the rest of the supporting cast. However, a
standout cameo comes from Dominique Pinon. He makes
an appearance as a drifter by the name of “Two Clouds,” to relay some rudimentary
knowledge to T.S. only to have his thoughts pragmatically dismantled by the boy
genius. Their shared screen time is
brief but truly noteworthy. Pinon is perhaps Jeunet’s favorite thespian as he has appeared in every single one of his features to date. 

Boundless originality within a
familiar framework defines “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet,” and while it
will certainly be as schismatic as the notion is confronts, it’s certain to be
a rewarding pleasure for those fascinated with the director’s unorthodox
filmmaking approach. Heartfelt storytelling and precise technique can coexist,
just as scientific achievements and rural wisdom are not mutually exclusive. Intellectual
obscurity only occurs in the indiscriminate separation of the two. Jeunet wants to find that utopian balance in which
even the most theoretical of concepts can be connected to the more preciously
mundane and often irrational aspects of life. Under Jeunet’s brush even T.S.’s
most impressive invention eventually serves a functional purpose that ties his
passion for empirical knowledge to the inner strength of his untainted heart.

Early in the film a museum lecturer (Mairtin O’Carrigan) asks his audience, “Those
who pushed the boundaries of science were they not all poets? What if imagination
started when science ended?” He asks those
questions to prove that though most innovations feel implausible at first,
there is always someone with enough disregard for impossibility to pursue such
ventures. The dreamer and the scientist are one and the same.That’s how one can understand a
visionary like Jeunet, as one of cinema’s finest Da Vincis whose voice manages
to make the cerebral and the visceral sing in unison.

“The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is now playing across the U.S.

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