The Young Prodigious TS Spivet movie review

Featuring: Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Callum Keith Rennie, Jakob Davies, Niamh Wilson
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 6 Nov (Cinema Paradiso)

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Off-kilter and intriguing, bittersweet, occasionally humorous, but somehow less engaging emotionally than it should have been.

Visually, the early stages of this French/Canadian collaboration are stylistically reminiscent of an idealised America of the past. On outward appearances, the Spivet family would not be out of place in an early 60s TV family sitcom, except for their geographical isolation. They live in a quintessentially American homestead (gorgeous, painted red) on a ranch in the middle of splendid farming country. There’s a classic barn, also painted red. But zoom in, and this vision loses its familiarity, warping into something other.

The characters are not run of the mill. Mom (Helena Bonham Carter) is an obsessive entomologist. Nerdy ten-year-old T.S. (Kyle Catlett) has inherited her genes, seeing and cataloguing the world through the eyes of a scientist gifted way beyond his years. In stark contrast, twin bro Layton (Jakob Davies) is an outdoorsy type who loves guns and hunting. He takes after his taciturn father (Callum Keith Rennie), a Wild West cowboy out of era who spends his leisure time watching westerns. Only teen daughter Gracie (Niamh Wilson) adheres to stereotype, rolling her eyes in disgust and derision at her kid brothers, and dreaming of a future urban life of stardom and sophistication.

Then comes a jolting realisation that the setting has been in the past, before tragedy struck the family. The film shifts gear at this point. T.S. receives news from the Smithsonian Institution that he has won the prestigious Baird Prize for a perpetual motion machine he has invented. He keeps his triumph to himself, and steals off in the early morning, stowing away on a passing freight train bound for Washington DC, determined to be there for his prize presentation.

The bum’s freight train journey, a mythical staple of American literature and film, is rendered strange in Jeunet’s hands. Camaraderie is an intrinsic element of boxcar hopping, but apart from an encounter with an old, eccentric European hobo (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon – who else?), T.S.’s journey is a lonely, solitary one aboard a dark carriage done out like an opulent hotel room stage set and peopled with smiling cut-outs seated at a table by a window that serve to highlight his loneliness as he forges blindly ahead into the unknown, at every stop dodging guards who have been alerted to watch out for a runaway boy.

If the cross-country odyssey is unsettling and alienating, the destination is more so. Judy Davis has some wicked fun in the role of Ms Jibsen, a Smithsonian staff member who takes the young prodigy under her wing, intending to propel him – and herself – to fame and fortune. However, something far more valuable awaits T.S.

The film is shot in 3-D, which enhances its hyper-real, dream-like quality. It’s an off-kilter, bittersweet, occasionally humorous little number, intriguing throughout, but somehow less engaging emotionally than it should have been. Lead Kyle Catlett is not particularly endearing, although this might be attributed less to his performance than his character, who operates on a cerebral rather than emotional level. All in all, this is a curiosity piece, an American dream dreamt by an eccentric and imaginative French director that translates to an unusual, visually accomplished, but not entirely filling movie experience.

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