Based on Reif Larsen’s standout authorial debut of similar title, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet by Amélie director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet features much of his prior attention to offbeat whimsy and visual spectacle, yet sadly forgoes narrative cohesion in what would otherwise be a much more affecting addition to Jeunet’s already highly decorative filmography. This is mostly due to the somewhat stilted nature of the film’s stage-by-stage storytelling. That is not to say that an episodic narrative inherently lends itself to discontinuity – it does, however, create a sense of formal punctuation where there would ordinarily be an instinctive flow. Where T.S. Spivet unfortunately fails in regard to its use of intermittent narrative procedures ultimately lies in its inability to form any tangible themes, while simultaneously appealing to a fable-like structure. Despite Jeunet’s particularly rich use of symbolism throughout, the lack of thematic allegiance towards any one issue eventually results in much of T.S.’s inner turmoil falling somewhat flat. Nonetheless, T.S. Spivet does command a wonderfully sentimental tongue at times. The film’s striking ability to continually skirt the edge of melodrama is perhaps its most remarkable, and strongest asset – though this is very much down to performances; particularly that of relative newcomer, Niamh Wilson.
For such a seemingly peripheral character, Gracie (Niamh Wilson) is undoubtedly the most endearing. In this case, Wilson somehow finds a space in which the stereotypical teenage narcissist does not succumb to obnoxiousness. As such, Wilson generates genuine empathy throughout, in what must be one of the most charming moments in cinema so far this year. Other performances are also suitably nuanced in comparison, though some regrettably fall victim to awkwardly spoken dialogue at times. This is often the case with T.S. Spivet’s titular protagonist, played by Kyle Catlett. However, visually, Catlett is uncommonly natural; his wide-ranging ability, regardless of how substantial a scene’s emotional heft may be, is certainly evident for the duration – at least in a physical sense. Dialogue between T.S. and his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) often appears laboured, though this isn’t a flaw of Bonham Carter’s making. Despite playing the role of distanced parent, Bonham Carter manages to maintain an underlying concern around the main body of her rhetoric, while this is less so when it comes to Catlett, who is equally as distanced. Although interpersonal relationships suffer at the hands of graceless lines and awkward direction, T.S. Spivet’s quixotic introspection in way of character is more than enough to warrant such oversights.
Contributing to these highly romanticised spates of contemplation and fantasy, Thomas Hardmeier’s comfortably idyllic cinematography is nothing short of beautiful. Warmth and colour permeate the screen, as Hardmeier’s slow, languid movements create an almost dreamlike quality despite Jeunet’s surprising (and first time) choice to employ the use of 3D technologies. Having exhaustively researched all aspects of stereography and its selected qualities, Jeunet has truly engaged with the merits of stereoscopic cinema in a way that doesn’t feel wholly contrived or “gimmicky”. Jeunet’s decision to shoot entirely in 3D means that the “diorama effect” of poorly converted 3D footage is entirely absent, while Hardmeier’s passive shooting method leaves nothing to disorientate those unaccustomed to 3D “pop-ins”. Furthermore, Jeunet’s inclusion of 3D technologies also serves as a formal process that interestingly plays into the film’s considered approach to thought on screen. T.S.’s designs and fantasies float across the screen in sole contribution to character exposition and narrative progression. Where 3D plays into this, it’s really Jeunet’s ability to allow simultaneous continuation of action without directly addressing the audience – i.e. T.S.’s inner thoughts can be displayed without halting the development of plot – that impresses. As such, Jeunet’s latest makes effective use of visual innovation and performance – appropriately favouring visual representation over a telling medium.