I was told once — many years ago — that the U.S. patent office doesn’t even accept patents for perpetual motion machines, because they get far too many and after years of seeing them fail, they figured “hey, this isn’t ever going to happen.” So, they put a kibosh on the whole thing to save time. Or it was scientifically proven to not be possible — until, of course, we find out it is. Regardless, I bring this up because The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is about a kid who invents a perpetual motion machine and then takes a journey from a small Montana ranch to Washington, D.C. all on his own.
The boy is Mr. T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett), from the title, who is only ten years old, but is really, really smart. Like, super smart. His mother (Helena Bonham Carter) is also really smart, and that’s where he presumably got his brains. The father (Callum Keith Rennie) is a typical cowboy from the late 1800s; T.S. speculates he was born a century too late. Completing the family is Gracie (Niamh Wilson), who feels trapped on the ranch, and Layton (Jakob Davies), who died a while back after an accident with a gun, but T.S. often sees and talks to him anyway.
This is an adventure film, kind of. T.S. hops on a freight train that will take him from Montana to D.C., and we get to follow him every step of the way. He has to escape the police, mingle with hobos and truck drivers, and reflect upon his life back home. There’s little more to the film than that. But it’s a joy to watch. It really is.
Much of the film’s pleasure comes from the constant transition from humor to sadness. It does a wonderful job of both bringing up and balancing emotions. You’re rarely not feeling something. It’s rare that a child actor leading a film is a good idea, but this is one of those times. Kyle Catlett manages to bring with him both a childish innocence and an adult intellect, and in doing so turns in a very compelling lead performance. Just having him sit and study a notebook can be captivating. You can tell these two forces are competing within him.
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who directed Amelie and a few other lesser-known movies. This one fits in perfectly with his signature style. You know how there are some filmmakers for whom you can see a single frame and pick out who shot it? Jeunet is one of those, and his visuals are stunning. This is a rich and colorful movie, even if it is often a bit weird. It’s heartfelt and a wonderful watch, both from an emotional and visual perspective.
There are a few surprises along the way, and when they’re revealed, they’re emotionally affecting. They’re properly teased earlier on, and then the reveal happens and a tear falls from your eye. And then the next scene will make you laugh. It’s all sweet, it all feels a little bit magical, and it’s pretty fun to take this journey with T.S. Everything is interesting, everything feels like it matters, and there isn’t a single dull moment. The film doesn’t overstay its welcome, either, which is always a bonus.
If you’re Canadian, you almost owe it to yourself to see this film for two reasons. The first is that it was largely shot in Canada. You’ll also get to see Rick Mercer in an acting role. He plays an obnoxious talk show host, and his scenes are really good. Okay, three reasons: it’s also an enjoyable movie. But you don’t need to be Canadian for that one to matter. I have a feeling that most people won’t care if it was shot in Canada or know who Rick Mercer is. Maybe people do. But I doubt it.
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a very enjoyable movie. Filled with humor, sadness, beautiful cinematography, a wonderful imagination, and just a hint of magic, this is a film that will make you feel a wide range of emotions, all while appreciating its beauty. It has a strong leading performance from a child actor — a rarity — a style unique to its director, and a strong supporting cast. These types of films don’t come along every day. You should see The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet.