The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet

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The amazing thing about water drops is that they always take the path of least resistance. For humans it’s exactly the opposite.–T.S. Spivet

Every movie creates a world that falls somewhere on a continuum ranging from the fantastical, such as the worlds of Star Wars or Harry Potter, to those more or less like our own, like the settings from Ordinary People or Into the Wild. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, the latest film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who also did Amelie, falls somewhere in the middle, offering a world simultaneously bizarre and familiar.

T. S. Spivet opens on a rural, idyllic setting in Montana where two very ordinary looking boys entertain themselves in very ordinary ways, ranging from dropping cans into the creek to playing on a see saw. The boys, joined by their sister, father, and mother, form a typical Eisenhower-era nuclear family. Underneath the surface, however, these family members each have their own quirks, as is evident from their description in the Wiki:

“T.S. Spivet is a 10-year-old prodigy with a passion for cartography and scientific inventions. He lives on a ranch in Montana with his mother who is obsessed with the morphology of beetles; his father, a cowboy born a hundred years too late; and his 14-year-old sister who dreams of becoming Miss America.”

Most boys, we know, are not passionate about cartography. And yet these characteristics are described so matter-of-factly (via voiceover) and moved on from so quickly that the viewer just accepts them as a part of the background of the story. Such is the magic of a Jeunet film. Because the viewer is given no time to consider these peculiarities, the cease to be peculiar, and an obsession with the morphology of beetles becomes no different than an obsession with gardening. In this way, Jeunet is able to introduce the viewer to a fascinating world that is enjoyable of itself but doesn’t interfere with the story.  The characters are not there simply to be quirky.

And what is the story in The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet anyway? Fittingly enough as Jeunet’s first American film (let’s just forget that whole Alien: Resurrection thing happened, ok?), it’s a road movie. T.S., having been chosen by the Smithsonian to receive the “Baird” prize, must make his way to D.C. to accept the award. This story line moves the action steadily forward and drives the often hilarious external conflict. Additionally, a second, separate thread also drives an internal conflict. T.S.’s brother Layton, we learn, was accidentally killed when trying to unjam a rifle, and the family has become fragmented, not through their differences, but through the separate ways each member tries to deal with grief.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a very entertaining film that satisfies on multiple levels. Highly recommended.

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