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A Very Long Adolescence

Jan Thijs/Sydney Film Festival 2014

The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet (2014)

Exactly what a film director is supposed to do with 3-D remains an open question, but "The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet" presents Jean-Pierre Jeunet with an open goal. The charts, diagrams, schematics and unlikely doodads of Reif Larsen's illuminated source novel are freed from their planar life and sent spinning in all directions, direct from the imagination of young Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet — a rare example of the technology perhaps adding something to the inner life of the character. Limiting the 3-D to just those flights of fancy might have made the point more effectively; instead it gets diluted by the usual cavalcade of pollen, protrusions and projectiles threatening to bean you between the eyes.

Young T. S. (Kyle Catlett) is a classic child genius who might benefit from a beaning himself. A sensitive soul, precocious beyond his years but easily bruised, he sets off from the family's Montana ranch after a domestic tragedy and heads toward Washington, D.C., to receive a prize from the Smithsonian for nothing less than the invention of perpetual motion; a notion the film treats with as little gravity as everything else. A road movie with unreal roads, the unsurprising takeaway is that honest homespun self-reliance trumps caustic urban sophistication, especially when the former is Callum Keith Rennie in a cowboy hat and the latter is Judy Davis sneering from underneath a severe bob.

If the visual instincts of director and author nearly align, the gears crunch elsewhere. The story cries out for a dash of authentic Americana; but despite the best efforts of composer Denis Sanacore to get some folksy momentum going on the soundtrack, the film stays stuck in a day-glo neverland only Canadian sets and acres of green screen can conjure. Another hazard is the difficulty Mr. Jeunet's patented combo of whimsical absurdities and thoughtful grotesques can have in giving a story wings, well-proven across several films. When inherently complex performers such as Sigourney Weaver or Marion Cotillard crop up and stand their ground, the friction can work; in "T. S. Spivet" the wish to depict a child's eye view of an inexplicable world translates into everyone seeming either shallow or callow and staying that way, earthbound and humdrum.


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