Title: T S Spivet
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Major Players: Kyle Catlett, Helen Bonham Carter, Judy Davis
Out of Five: 4
Any contemporary film with box office ambitions has to be in 3-D. It’s become an unwritten law. But how many of them actually use the format to bring something creative and genuinely new to the screen? You can probably count them on the fingers of one hand – if at all. But now, here’s one that genuinely does. T S Spivet.
Originally known as The Young And Prodigious T S Spivet, the title has been shortened to just the name of the central character. T S (Kyle Catlett) is a ten year old who lives on an isolated Montana ranch with his scientist mother (Helena Bonham Carter), taciturn cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie), older sister and twin brother. His gift for science goes unrecognised at school, but he wins an award from The Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC and decides to collect it, a journey that takes him across half the country. Little does the Institute realise that its winner is a young boy or that he has a dark secret about his past.
This comes from the director and writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who also made the captivating Amelie some 13 years ago. In T S Spivet, he seems to have re-captured some of that same spirit, but this time set it in something closer to a family film.
And what gives it that spirit is its glorious vision, brought to life with beautiful 3-D graphics that float around the screen. It’s one of those all-too-rare instances of 3-D coming into its own. Some are sketches of T S’s inventions, others illustrations of his theories and sometimes they even show us the inside of another character’s mind – especially his sister – for a clearer understanding of what they’re thinking. Each section of the film is introduced with a pop-up book graphic, resembling his mother’s diary, which he reads on his journey to Washington. It’s full of photographs, drawings, hand prints and notes and explains a lot to the ten year old about his mother, her feelings and her relationship with his father.
The rest of the film’s spirit is down to the gentle humour that runs through it like the railway T S takes to Washington. Some of it comes from the characters he meets on his picaresque journey, others from his own resourcefulness, especially in his efforts to avoid the railway police. His disguise as a promotional cardboard cut-out in a motorhome is priceless!
While the graphics give the film a nostalgic tone, it’s actually set in the present day – the secretary at The Smithsonian has a laptop and her boss uses a mobile phone – but T S and his family on the ranch seem to live in a time warp. Nobody has a mobile – there’s no reception – so the only telephone is on the wall in the house. The father’s ‘den’ where he watches westerns on an old TV – there’s no DVDs – is full of stuffed animals. And the mother, despite her abilities as a scientist, is a lousy cook, with a mounting collection of toasters that catch fire with monotonous regularity.
As T S, Kyle Catlett makes a great feature film debut. He’s hardly off the screen and carries the story with ease and a confidence that belies his age. Helena Bonham Carter has an uncharacteristically low key approach to the role of his mother, a tactic that not only works but suits her surprisingly well. And, as the Under-Secretary at the Smithsonian, Judy Davis sports a hair style rather similar to that of Anna Wintour and relishes the limelight.
Actually, it’s Davis that could give the film a bit of a problem. While it’s essentially a family story, there’s one scene involving a TV interview with T S that doesn’t go to plan and, as Davis’s character has had one too many glasses of champers in the green room, her verdict on the fiasco is expressed in the choicest of language. While the spectacle of an immaculate, prim woman being outed as having a potty mouth is hugely funny, the one thing it’s not is suitable for family viewing.
In shortening the film’s title, the makers have bucked the current vogue for longer ones – think X-Men:Days Of Future Past and Pulp:A Film About Life, Death And Supermarkets – but, should they decide to revert to something more wordy, then dare I suggest The Beautifully Magical T S Spivet? It would suit it to a T. Or a T S.
T S Spivet is released around the UK on Friday, 13 June.