Whenever I watch a Jean-Pierre Jeunet picture, the feelings that it invokes are always the same. There is fascination and wonder, not disimilar to the feelings of open-mouthed awe at everything from the eyes of a blind man seeing for the first time. It might not actually be that revolutionary, but dressed up just right, it is still a previously unwitnessed treat. Like the eponymous TS Spivet, you could also liken it to the inquisitve nature of a curious and innocently optimistic child, not knowing what’s coming but anticipating the nervous excitement of its arrival, nonetheless.
Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessen, A Very Long Engagement), once again, brings us a picture that features his usual off-kilter view of humanity. You cannot deny that the man has a unique and peculiar vision, choosing to represent characters that speak to him as a creative conduit, allowing his huge imagination to freefall wherever and everywhere. The film, an adaptation of Reif Larson’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, centres around the life a young but brilliant boy, his creation of a perpetual motion wheel and his unique train journey alone to collect the Baird Award from the Smithsonian Institute, who at the time of offering him the prize, have no idea that he is only ten years old.
Son of a cowboy father, an entomologist mother and raised on a Montana farm, the often quizzical young boy, not showing any proficiency for hunting, grappling any other skill required of a cowboy-in-training has been left to his own devices quite a bit in his time, where his imagination runs riot and it is not a time he believes should be wasted. Inspired by a lecture to search for the answer to perpetual motion, he takes up the challenge with miraculous results.
When the call comes to honour TS Spivet for his ahcievement in science, the institute assumes it is his father that is responsible, a falsehood that TS himself agrees is the case as he is speaking to the Institiure on the telephone at the time. He desperately wants to go to receive his award, but he’s only ten, and he hasn’t even told his parents that he has won. His father would not be proud of his scientific feats, TS believes, as ever since the accidental death of his brother, he believes his father blames him for the loss of his other son, Layton, the boy that clearly was the object if his father’s real affections.
And so TS packs a bag in the middle of the night and heads for the freight train that he knows will pass near his house, just like clockwork, at the same time every early morning. And so his adventure begins.
Narrated by TS, we are drawn effortlessly into his ordinary world. A distant father, a pre-occupied mother and the one remaining spouse, a teenage sister that hates her life in the middle of nowhere almost as much as TS despairs of his own. This gifted but unrecognised child, lost in his own world of regret at the death of his brother and the sadness at his invisibility to those around him becomes more and more closed off as time passes, only really finding any kind of life in his focused goal of achieving a scientific breakthrough.
Naturally, these characters are both extremely well realised and individually unique and immersive, given the opportunity to dwell with each them for a while. The writing is brilliantly effervescent, breathing hearty gulps of life into characters that could easily have been boring and pedestrian in other hands. The cinematography, as you would expect for a Jeunet project, is sumptuous and even overpowers the narrative on occasion, but it is so glorious that you can easily become lost in the characters surroundings with some stunnign attention to detail, in examples like the fathers’ study, where you simply know that every knick-knack has a back-story of its own.
Again, true to form, Jeunet does throw the odd spanner in the works, be it an unexpected animation or two, but this compliments the film well and never feels out of place with the often dream-like setting that these characters have beem placed, often making the audience feel out of time.
The acting is mostly brilliant, but this is a heavy burden for one so young to cope with and whilst Catlett does some outstanding work at times, you do sometimes find yourself checking the reality quotient when he is asked to handle some of the more meatier moments that would require an acting talent of years greater than his own. On the whole, however, his performance is often just as impressive as the invention his character has created.
Altogether, a beautiful, elegant and delightful piece of film-making that will often have you enraptured by the simple story, with a signature feel of Jeunet that proves, yet again, what an imaginative luminary he indeed is. Go get lost with TS for a couple of hours, and you will be a better human being for it, I guarantee it.