The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2015)

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“The war of mediocrity is the fungus of the mind.”

When you watch a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, you can expect visual flair in an over the top world of eccentricity. His films are gorgeous pastel portraits of the bizarre and the strange. With The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, Jeunet takes another step backwards in terms of quality (his last film Micmacs was a bit of a nightmare.) His scale is off-balance, either too whimsically silly or heavily grounded, and the result is a tonally undefined film. I’m sure if you asked Jeunet what Spivet’s central theme is he would give an answer as ornate and peculiar as this movie. The problem is that his well-meaning intentions, while clearly there, are overcooked. The message is lost in translation. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet thinks that it is far better than it proves to be.

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T.S. (Kyle Catlett) lives on his family ranch in Montana’s great Continental Divide. He’s an inventor and a genius who’s out of place and touch from the rest of his family, with a science minded mother (Helena Bonham Carter), a sister (Niamh Wilson) seeking normalcy and fame, and a distanced countryman in his father (Callum Keith Rennie). They feel less like a family with shared traits than strangers permanently holed up together in a Bed and Breakfast. Spivet is very much about the family dynamics, revolving around T.S. as our central character, and drastically uses awkward transitions to divert the route. In short, it becomes a road movie as the “young and prodigious” secretly heads off to be honored for his latest contribution: a machine capable of perpetual motion. And at the rate the film goes, you’ll feel as if it mirrors the same capability. I though Spivet would never end.

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It is always hard to critique a young actor’s performance. The process is more about them being molded by the director than imbuing their own sense of background to the character. As T.S., Kyle Catlett just isn’t good, with the blame falling on the shoulders of writer/director Jeunet. His focus is on the world he attempts to build here. But audiences won’t care about your film and your story without endearing characters to hold their hand or to wave them along in pursuit. It’s like watching a cross-country trek driven by a ghost; eventually your head gets lost in the scenery. Spivet goes against the grain, defying logic without having any of its own to fall back on. Jeunet aims at a target he cannot see with performances left uncalibrated and miscalculated by his insensitive direction.

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Maybe plugging your ears or pressing mute would work better. That way the daydream would be just that. However, Spivet’s last third dwells in its own melancholy atmosphere. Few movies I have seen so far this year have been so purposefully manipulative. Jeunet’s feature doesn’t just force sentiment upon us; it wrings our emotions out like an old, tattered, dirty mop. And then he throws us back to the ground headfirst to lap up the mess. The tragedy little T.S. stows away with him, meant to be a revealing twist, is clear from the onset. If you fall for this, well, I’m afraid you’ll fall for just about anything. With features such as Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, and his magnum opus Amelie, Jeunet has shown that he can be a storyteller. A voice of the darkly satiric and a relic of absolutely feel-good cinema. Yet with Micmacs and now The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, he has become a stylist. I hope the trend doesn’t set in, because it’s a shame to see such a quirky and unique filmmaker dressed in such gaudy garb.

“Superiority complex, that’s what you have T.S.”

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

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