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The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet – Movie Review

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The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

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There’s a charming and endearing story to be had in The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet and director/co-writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet injects it with the same touch of whimsical nature that greeted his most famous film Amelie. For two thirds of the running time, it’s a relatively whimsical family film with a good amount of visual flourishes and a likeable child protagonist. However, it takes an odd turn in the third act that makes one question what audience Jeunet is aiming this tale towards. Any sense of wonder one expects from T.S. Spivet seems to not materialize and it ultimately ends in a whimper. It, thus, becomes a film that seems to be aimed at neither a child nor adult demographic.

The movie is at its most entertaining when exploring young Spivet’s mind as he shows his expertise and intelligence. Jeunet’s biggest forte is in his little visual touches as Spivet calculates his ideas and puts them to use. The script is able to portray him as intelligent beyond his years without coming across as condescending or obnoxious. One scene where he confronts a teacher serves as a delightful piece of revenge fantasy against any school instructor who thinks they’re the smartest person in the room. His family life is well-developed, in particular his relationship with his mother and sister. Helena Bonham Carter, in particular, brings a lot of subtle expression as his scientifically minded mother and delivers the most memorable performance in the entire film. Niamh Wilson (formerly of the short-lived, but charming Canadian television series Debra) also showcases plenty of spark as his pageant-obsessed sister. Meanwhile, Kyle Catlett brings to mind Macaulay Culkin in his prime, able to mix innocence and spunk.

Spivet’s train trip across country to Washington DC gives Jeunet the opportunity to explore more of his mind and thoughts and the story cutting back to the family leads to some humourous moments. Spivet’s constant thwarting of authorities is genuinely tense and the various characters he encounters along the way don’t become too distracting or overly quirky. It’s when he arrives in Washington that the story takes an odd left-field turn. Any sense of wonder one expects to appear, based on the preceding two acts, never happens. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet turns from an endearing family film into an odd commentary on the media and its treatment of child prodigies. With its depiction of fake, full-of-themselves adults, it seems like Jeunet was going for an approach similar to Roald Dahl’s work, but never reaches that same level of biting wit.

The decision to cast Rick Mercer as the host of an American talk show is a particularly perplexing one. Casting him as a television show host is the equivalent of hiring Jon Stewart to play a news anchor. One can’t help but see Mercer on the screen rather than the actual character he’s playing. However, what really takes one out of the movie is the random and out-of-nowhere curse words that appear in the third act. These aren’t mild and relatively harmless swear words, but the big four-letter ones that parents tend to prefer their children not hear. Suddenly, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet forgets about the audience segment that probably would have liked this film the most. There is some dark humour early on, but nothing too out of the PG range. There’s nothing wrong with a little swearing in a family film, but when it’s this abrupt, it becomes very jarring. The entire third act feels like the movie switched writers once the original screenwriter was done working on the first two thirds of the script.

There’s a Wes Anderson-like tone to the way Jean-Pierre Jeunet directs the film and shows how there’s more quality control with family movies these days. However, Jeunet eventually loses track of his audience, with both adults and children likely to be confused by the sudden direction T.S. Spivet takes near the end. There’s nothing wrong with not following the typical family filmmaking rules, but it goes so off the cliff, it leaves the movie with a sour taste in one’s mouth. The film succeeds at being quite unique at times, but no amount of originality can save a movie when the story begins to lose focus.

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Review By: Stefan Ellison

THE SCENE

Stefan Ellison