Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet: Intellectual Consciousness And Brutal US Capitalist Conformity

While a movie directed by an outsider delving into American life may suffer the pitfalls of idiomatic mishaps lost in translation so to speak, a detached point of view can on the other hand, shine a sharper and less hesitant, self-conscious light on the native foibles and fears at hand. Such was the case last year with British director Steve McQueen's unprecedented, uncompromising scrutiny of that shameful, brutal period of buried US history this country has always been averse to confronting, with his scathing dramatic biopic, 12 Years A Slave.

Not nearly as raw and revealing, but certainly striking a few sensitive nerves with its gently probing satirical bite, is French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Bringing his bold and cutting edge wit to this scrutiny of peculiar when not outlandish American customs and bad behavior, Jeunet's mischievously playful cinematic reputation precedes him, with raucous gems like Delicatessen and Amelie.

Derived from Reif Larsen's illustrated debut novel, The Selected Works of TS Spivet, Jeunet's adaptation is deceptively crafted as a child's adventure. But within that visually stunning,  imaginative tale is an excursion through the darker heart and paradoxically damaged soul of America.

Kyle Catlett is the T.S. Spivet in question, a beyond precocious ten year old genius and rural Montana boy whose scientific knowledge and analytical powers have rendered him a local alienated outcast in a rigidly conformist culture. Where reactions to the boy tend to narrowly range from ridicule to the irritated displeasure of his baffled teacher at school.

And Spivet fares no better at home, where he's emotionally rejected by a cowboy obsessed rancher father who'd rather the boy be more like the macho males around him, and scorned by a sister aspiring to beauty pageants. And though he shares an intellectual and apparently genetic bond with his mother, played by Helena Bonham Carter - a woman who must limit her own passionate scientific inquiries into the lives of insects to her domestic downtime between household duties - she herself is dismissed as a designated eccentric as well.

Following Spivet's groundbreaking invention at home of a futuristic, power harnessing gadget, he's summoned to the Smithsonian Institute in D.C. to receive a top award, though they're unaware that he's a mere child. Concealing his age on the phone to the crafty official (Judy Davis) who invited him - and who harbors an agenda of her own to exploit the boy for her own ambitions - Spivet secretly sets off on the long journey from Montana to D.C. via boxcar. And in a tale morphing into a visually enthralling road movie, equally enchanting for children and adult audiences alike. Even when encountering a flaky truck driver war veteran offering Spivet a lift, as he explains with difficulty how he signed up to see the world which necessitated killing people in the process.

But within the colorful layers of humor and heartbreak summoned in equal measure by Jeunet's magical powers of visual storytelling, are stinging perceptions pertaining to oppressive cultural tendencies playing out in this country. Including difference intolerance, and the ostracism of knowledgeable minds and probing intellectual inquiry beyond the narrow constrictions of stunted mass conformity. And aggressive competition counting militaristic driven adventurism and unquestioning tragic gun love derived from the capitalist mentality, and even over science in the pursuit of a better world.

Prairie Miller

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