When misunderstood prodigy T. S. Spivet (Catlett) learns he has won the prestigious Baird Award for science, he elects to make his own way to Washington to collect his prize. A journey that will take him across nearly half of America.
The exceptional if solemn ten year-old T. S. Spivet (that is Tecumseh Sparrow, but folk stick with ‘T. S.’), one of the foremost scientific thinkers in America, is a fine fit for Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the idiosyncratic French filmmaker who directs as if assembling a cuckoo clock. One measures the world to adult precision, the other portrays the world with childlike whimsy.
For his second English-language film, adorned with widescreen vistas of big America (the story jumps a train from Montana to Chicago then hitchhikes to Washington, D. C.) but still well within house style, Jeunet tells the peripatetic saga of T. S. (stoic newcomer Kyle Cattlet), who treks to D. C. and a Smithsonian trophy for inventing a perpetual motion machine.
Author Reif Larsen populated the margins of The Selected Works Of T. S. Spivet with an industry of footnotes, and here the hero’s brainwaves and daydreams digitally materialise as quirky marginalia afloat in the skilfully administered 3D. The movie tick-tocks like a scientific instrument. It’s the human parts that ring hollow.
The Spivets are a dysfunctional species. His mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) is a distracted entomologist who murders toasters, his father (Callum Keith Rennie) an unconversant cowboy, his jovial twin enjoys shooting things, and his sister moons over beauty pageants. But beyond T. S., the characters are just clever jokes, sprockets in the film’s clockwork heart.
The mood remains as measured as Amélie, but here it leaves you craving those dark shots that once caffeinated Jeunet’s work. Where is the bite? The satire? The cannibal Parisians plotting to eat grandma? Questions you could ask of most movies these days.
For all it boasts in ingenious style, this genial American yarn lacks the delicious bile of Jenuet’s early days.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan