The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a title that should trigger anyone's gaydar. It evokes that "innocent" time when gay young men were tactfully described as "sensitive and precocious," but is set in a present-day as visually, emotionally intense as 3D. Ten-years-old T.S. (Kyle Catlett) is a science-minded nerd who runs away from his Montana home to accept an award from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., for his invention of a perpetual motion machine.
Rich with fantasy (serving as desire and allegory), the movie shows a young boy moving toward self-realization, an essential gay concern. T.S. packs favorite items in luggage (including his mother's diary) and leaves a comforting note: "You are the best family in the world." This ambivalence (first pinpointed in Andre Techine's gay coming-of-age drama I Don't Kiss), explains his escape into science and invention--as many a gay child has similarly escaped into art, literature, theater. It also reflects the influence of a pubescent sister (Niamh Wilson), an adventurous, intellectual mom (Helena Bonham Carter) and a rugged, cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie).
T.S. alternates naturally between reason and instinct, realism and fantasy, yet he harbors a secret: his twin brother Layton was killed in an accident that split the family into disparate eccentric worlds. This powerful sense of longing contrasts the film's poignant, dreamlike imagery of a supernaturally bright, clean, unspoiled America. A sense of distance and untouchable beauty animates every frame.
French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Alien Resurrection) idealizes America as a pop-up picture book. Western landscapes are vast and colorful like Thomas Hart Benton paintings. Jeunet creates a child's vision like his 1995 City of Lost Children while stirring the romantic detachment that helps kids--especially gay kids?--survive and cope. T.S. struggles toward his identity in response to his mother's intellectual isolation (she catalogues bugs as species or sub-species) and his father's stoic perseverance (his masculine duty and protectiveness--epitomized when he places chocolate squares between his toes for the family dog to lick). These contrasting soft/tough personalities urge T.S. to define himself against social norms and toward deeper family sympathy.
Many gay filmmakers (Cocteau, Visconti, Demy, Cukor) used to express their sense of difference through melodramatic heterosexual plots. Jeunet's nuclear family dioramas contain recent social enlightenment and respect difference--a gay child's individuality. (T.S.'s cruel schoolteacher chides: "Superiority complex, that's what you have!" Every gifted or different child has felt that sting.) It moves into areas of private sensitivity which gay viewers might respond especially strongly.
Precedents for T.S. Spivet include Charles Laughton's 1955 childhood tale The Night of the Hunter with its implicitly gay venturing into worldly danger; Robert Mulligan's 1972 story of mournful adolescent separation The Other; and Carson McCuller's1952 androgynous coming-of-age drama The Member of the Wedding. If you don't know these films, Jeunet's evocation (including a nod to Helena Bonham Carter's Toast, a marvelous bio-pic of gay gourmand Nigel Slater) gives reason enough to search them out. T.S. Spivet joins the legacy of adolescent difference even in films that look at the eternal mystery and wonderment of love, marriage and family. That's the perpetual motion machine--a pop-up vision of today's new gay reality.
All this aligns T.S. Spivet's reverie to modern gay consciousness. The scene of T.S. attempting to free a goat stuck in barbed wire is a perfect symbol for gay social struggle (and recalls a powerful moment in Spielberg's War Horse). No other film this year matches the moment of T.S. explaining his fraternal loss to a roomful of adult faces. The mention of AIDS and bereavement take the film outside the kids-movie realm as surely as the scene of a youth's cerebral cortex (a round table of selves and wall panel videos of the super-ego) is visually and philosophically superior to Pixar's Inside Out.
T.S. Spivet is a boy's film in the best sense; its subtitles, inserts and diorama imagery suggest a dream of what Wes Anderson movies used to be and could be at best. The moment little T.S. (the most moving child performance since Haley Joel Osment in A.I.) wonders if his father pats his back "to brush me off, reprimand me, or substitute for a hug" sums-up the entire past decade of gay political advance, and the need for affection and social acceptance that will never change. This quintessential humanity should be a lesson to every gay filmmaker (and gay film watcher) from now on.
Released in Europe in 3D (but 2D here), the American T.S. Spivet begs you to use your tactile imagination. It's the most touching film Harvey Weinstein ever dumped.
T.S. Spivet is currently in select theaters. Watch the trailer below: