Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, known for his delightful Amélie and A Very Long Engagement has gifted us with a tale set in the USA that is part road movie, coming of age, and neglected son seeking parental approval. Adapted from a novel by Reif Larsen, the film centers on a ten year-old boy with the unusual name of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett). What kind of parents, you might ask, would saddle their son with a name so unusual that he will become known by his initials rather than his given first name?
To say that the Spivet family is unusual is understating the case. Dwelling on Copper Top Ranch in Montana, the parents could be a case study in eccentricity. Tecumseh Elijah (Callum Keith Rennie), the father, looks, and acts, like a John Wayne cowboy spin-off, a man of few words. His man cave is crammed with artifacts indicating that he is the cowboy born over a hundred years too late. Mom, Dr. Clair (Helen Bonham Carter), is an entomologist so totally engrossed in her bugs that she scarcely notices the children. Our young hero has picked up his mother’s scientific curiosity, rather than his father’s values of rugged manliness. T.S.’s teenaged sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) is obsessed with bodily appearances because she wants to be Miss Montana and then an actress. There once was T.S.’s twin Layton, the apple of their father’s eye because he loved “shooting everything that moved.”
T.S. himself is something of a scientific genius, but no one in the family pays any attention to this. The boy feels all alone, blaming himself for his brother Layton’s death and knowing full well that his father preferred his dead brother to himself. No one talks about Layton or the shooting accident that took his life. However, all of this will change when T.S. decides to leave home and travel to Washington D.C. He has received a phone call from Smithsonian Museum representative Ms. Jibsen (Judy Davis) that his design for a perpetual motion machine has won a prestigious prize. She is unaware that the inventor is a ten year-old, so in a funny telephone scene T.S. tells her that he will call his father to the phone, but that because the man is a mute, he will serve as interpreter.
The boy packs a bag and sets out to catch a rides on a freight train, meeting colorful characters along the way, as well as dialoguing with his deceased brother. He has left a note telling the family not to worry about him—and, based on his years of neglect, he actually believes that they won’t. From Chicago he hitches a ride to D.C. where the self-promoting Ms. Jibsen is at first surprised that the inventor soon to be honored is a boy, but who quickly sees his age as a P.R. windfall. How all this culminates for T.S., and for his family back in Montana, provides for heartwarming viewing.
Known for his whimsical style, the director provides plenty of such moments, with T.S. as the narrator often giving full vent to his youthful imagination, as well as to such observations as, “The amazing thing about water drops is that they always take the path of least resistance. For humans it’s exactly the opposite.” The director adds diagrams, text and pictures to the scenes, such as the one in which the boy imagines himself at the crossroads between the Mountain of Lies and the Prairie of Truth—these work well with the film’s 3-D effects.
Permeated as it is with T.S.’s feeling of alienation and unresolved grief of the parents, this is a somewhat dark film, considering that children are a major part of its intended audience. For me one of the highlights is T.S.’s talking over the phone with his mom, the worry and concern clearly shown on her face—and standing by are his father and sister, with even the latter showing her concern for her little brother. It is a beautiful moment, one in which we catch a glimpse of what Jesus, though under very different circumstances, was conveying when he told his followers that they were worth more than many sparrows to God.
It is sad that the Weinstein Company, after purchasing US distribution rights, let the film sit on the shelf for a couple of years, and then, when they did release it, used very little of their usual vast promotional means to inform the public about it. Here in the Cincinnati area the film came and went in just a week with no fanfare. Fortunately Amazon.com has picked it up, making it available for streaming. The film will be a treat either for families or for groups wanting to watch and discuss something decidedly different from the usual family fare—the film has touches of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the modern classic A Christmas Story, so if you like those works you should enjoy this one. If you agree that this is an undiscovered gem of a film, then tell your friends about it–it deserves a better fate than its present one.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of Visual Parables.