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In “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet,” the running-away letter 10-year-old T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) leaves for his parents has got to be one of the most moving epistles in cinema history. Brimming with modesty, formal but warmly polite, it could have been written by a nice Japanese son. “I have gone for a while to do some work,” is the opening sentence, and the letter ends: “You are one of the best families in the world.”

For all that, however, T.S. feels he’s unwanted and misunderstood. In his family home in Montana, everyone is an eccentric: His dad (Callum Keith Rennie) is a “cowboy born 100 years too late”; his mom (Helena Bonham Carter) is a fiercely dedicated entomologist with a penchant for crickets; his sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) dreams of becoming Miss Montana; and his brother Layton (Jakob Davies) — his father’s favorite — will “shoot anything that moves.” They all live in the same house but lead separate lives, with the vast scientific talents of T.S. going unnoticed by his family.

Then Layton dies in a shooting accident and T.S. feels redundant. A call from the Smithsonian Institution telling him that he has won a prestigious prize for his invention of the “perpetual motion machine” prompts T.S. to pack a suitcase and head out to Washington, D.C. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I didn’t want to bother you by telling you about it ahead of time,” he writes in the letter to his family. T.S. may be a blonde American boy but he has the soul of a self-effacing Zen monk.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (Tensai Spivet)
Rating
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Run Time 104 minutes
Language English
Opens Nov. 15

This is the second English-language film by France’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet, after “Alien: Resurrection” in 1997, which was a sci-fi horror with medieval undertones. This new film (adapted from Reif Larsen’s “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet”), however, is much closer to Jeunet’s most famous and best-loved film: “Amelie.” Come to think of it, Amelie was also troubled by family issues — her father was preoccupied with the death of his wife and never tried to understand or love his daughter.

And like Amelie, T.S. loves his parents and pines for their approval. One of the underlying themes in both works is the way parents tend to underestimate the depth of their childrens’ emotions and inner lives.

Jeunet wraps the vast imagination of T.S. in his signature world of colorful whimsy, defined by a skewed and sometimes sardonic humor. The result is a visual wonderland that spills into your senses like an overflowing toy box — it’s classic Jeunet. The director is obviously enamoured with his young lead.

The story of T.S. and his clan requires second and third viewings — Jeunet’s frames are packed with information, strewn with gems and dusted with sugary sweetness. And it’s in 3-D, which under normal circumstances would have me running for cover but in this case works wonderfully in the film’s favor. Walking away after a single encounter would be like tasting a luscious cake and then throwing it away.

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