A ten-year-old cartographer secretly leaves his family's ranch in Montana where he lives with his cowboy father and scientist mother and travels across the country aboard a freight train to receive an award at the Smithsonian Institute.
T.S. Spivet 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. T.S. is a 10 year-old prodigy with a passion for cartography and scientific inventions. One day, he receives an unexpected call from the Smithsonian museum telling him that he is the winner of the very prestigious Baird prize for his discovery of the perpetual motion machine and that he is invited to a reception in his honor where he is expected to give a speech. Without telling anyone, he sets out on a freight train across the U.S.A. to reach Washington DC. There is also Layton, twin brother of T.S., who died in an accident involving a firearm in the family's barn, which no one ever speaks of. T.S. was with him, measuring the scale of the gunshots for an experiment, and he doesn't understand what happened. Written by
One might want to call this inevitable: that Jean-Pierre Jeunet, film's high priest of wild imagination, king of the bizarre and quirky, cinema's greatest child would end up making a film with a child protagonist. Jeunet found that protagonist in T.S. Spivet, the title character of Reif Larsen's best-selling novel about a boy burning with a passion for science, a keen observer of life with a strong will to leave his mark on the world and a dark secret. And even more so, he found him in Kyle Catlett, a small, frail blonde with piercing blue eyes, hesitant enthusiasm, an awake yet guarded mind, an infectious smile that is never sure of itself. For Catlett, Jeunet made the role younger, turning the book's twelve-year-old genius into an even more unlikely ten-year old through whose eyes he makes us see the world for those miraculous, mesmerizing, blissful 105 minutes.
And what a set of eyes they are: warm and loving, yet at the same time distant and objective, T.S. deconstructs the world in order to return it to order. As so often with Jeunet, he makes us look at the ordinary in an entirely new way. His hero's scientific glance transforms the everyday into miracles, makes the normal appear bizarre and vice versa. It is a look Jeunet had perfected in his masterpiece Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, better known shortly as Amélie. It is a world inhabited by quirky yet mostly lovable people: T.S.'s harassed mother (Helena Bonham Carter) who is obsessed with classifying insects, his quiet cowboy father Callum Keith Rennie, his entertainment addicted sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson). Jeunet paints them close to the caricaturesque, often adding an absurdist touch, a little too much color to make them appear brighter and clearer than life, only enhancing their humanity by turning the screw a little further.
Jeunet lets his hero narrate the story: how he, after his twin brother's fatal accident, sets out to improve the world through science, how he sets out to make his way to Washington, DC in order to pick up a prestigious science award. T.S.'s off voice provides distance, context, irony, humor but above all imagination. Visually, Jeunet indulges in small imaginative transgressions of realism, giving the film a playful, exploratory feel that perfectly matches his protagonist. The borders between the real and the imagined are fluent, their realms overlapping rather than separated. The wideness of rural Montana is too beautiful to be true, it may be more a country of the mind, but for Jeunet this doesn't make it less real. For him, imagination is the true life force, what one can dream of must be true. So one might wonder that T.S. keeps encountering good and friendly and helpful people, meets little conflict and arrives safely and almost smoothly in Washington as if he was dreaming it. And maybe he is, maybe we are.
Just like every dream this one has to end. And so it does and the film fizzles out in a mixture of flashy media satire, crude anti-modernism and sentimental celebration of family values. The simple, somewhat quirky yet honest and lovable people on the one side, the falseness of the polished capitalist façade on the other. T.S., of course, returns into the loving arms of his family and escapes the cruel materialism of a world governed by fame, power and money. No doubt the end weakens the overall effect of the film but cannot break it. For the power of human imagination it celebrates and visualizes, the playful anarchism it embodies, the shameless naïve optimism it upholds survive the crudeness and the one-dimensional caricature it ends up embracing. As the voice of T.S. Spivet prevails so does his spirit that calls on us to learn a new way of looking at world. Through observing eyes which believe that anything is possible as long as we can dream it. Imagine that.
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