T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is a genius, there's no doubt about it. Intellectually he runs rings around his contemporaries, but then again he is only ten years old. He lives in Montana where he and his twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies) used to enjoy experimenting with the way water would run depending on which side of the mountains they would be standing on, but otherwise they didn't have much in common. T.S. was well aware his father (Callum Keith Rennie) preferred his sibling who was far more of the outdoors type, but he wasn't the apple of his mother's eye either: Dr Clair (Helena Bonham Carter) was too wrapped up in her insect research to really pay attention to her offspring, and T.S.'s sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) wasn't exactly sympathetic...
Director and screenwriter (with Guillaume Laurent) Jean-Pierre Jeunet was searching for a book to adapt when he settled on Reif Larsen's cult novel about the prodigy T.S. Spivet, though as was often the case the fans of the original were wont to prefer it and judge the movie as having missed what made it the gem they considered it to be. That was not to say there was no worth to be found here, as Jeunet's meticulous style provided great pleasure merely by dint of watching it applied to his carefully crafted imagery, at times cluttered, other times plain yet striking, but always painterly and captivating, no matter that the material didn't always match it in diverting qualities. In this case, the balance was somewhere near to his best, though he was not able to prevent it feeling episodic.
That needn't be a bad thing in itself though the film was probably at its most accomplished in its "road movie" middle section where the structure lent itself to the various encounters the juvenile hero has on his journey to the Smithsonian. This is ostensibly to deliver a speech to an audience of the greatest scientific minds around who believe that he is actually an adult who has invented a perpetual motion machine, but they're only half right as T.S. has indeed created the machine (ever the pedant, he points out it will run down in four hundred years, so isn't strictly perpetual in its motion). Yet there's more to his running away from home to receive the plaudits he so richly deserves as there's an issue back at the farmhouse he is reluctant to face up to and this offers the ideal way out.
For a while, but T.S. is burdened with guilt, and it's here that the themes of the intellectual versus the emotional are highlighted. It's all very well, says the film, stretching your brain, be it mighty or otherwise, into fresh heights of incredible knowledge and achievement (personal or public), but the problem remains that you are still a human being, and you can experience great highs but more importantly harrowing lows as well. The way the world works appears to be that the worst aspects in it tend to eclipse the most joyful, and that is illustrated by the boy's mental agility, a source of his happiness, contrasted with the grief that he feels when the death of Layton weighs heavily on his shoulders. It was an accident, but no matter how you could explain this to the ten-year-old, his sense of responsibility is overwhelming.
Indeed, it can last a lifetime, that shame you can be stuck with for those occasions that may well have been out of your hands, but you cannot shake the sensation there should have been something you should have done to avoid it. By the end of this, you hope T.S. has met his problems and overcome them, but in the meantime you can appreciate some nice character work, leaning on caricature in some cases though not to the film's detriment at all, from the cast of well-known faces and less familiar ones, all of whom were nicely directed to what amounted to extended vignettes in many cases. Judy Davis as an official at the Smithsonian who regards her new charge as a moneymaker (he has told everyone he is an orphan, another example of running away from his pain) added a nicely acid note (and a few swearwords), Carter as the distracted parent managed a sweetness when she finally acknowledges her son's worries, but it was Catlett's show really, not too precocious and the source of genuine concern when he's in peril. Music by Denis Sanacore.