Film Review: A Brilliant Young Mind

Heartfelt film about an autistic savant who enters an international mathematics competition and learns life lessons. Despite fine performances, it’s predictable and slow.
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Autism is one cool disease of the week. Hardly a day goes by without some news item reporting how widespread and misunderstood the condition is. Films, novels and plays have hopped on the bandwagon. Arguably, they’ve been on the forefront, but that’s not really surprising.

An autistic character, especially a savant fighting inner and outer demons, can make for riveting drama, with more than a little rubbernecking thrown in for good measure. Consider Rain Man, Forrest Gump (though some might argue he was simply slow) and now the Tony-Award winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel.

And while the topic has some initial interest—and perhaps ongoing appeal to those who have children “on the spectrum” (another buzz phrase)—it ultimately wears thin without the benefit of compelling new insights, fascinating and unexpected characters, and original stories.

Regrettably, that can’t be said of filmmaker Morgan Matthews’ A Brilliant Young Mind, inspired by his trilogy of documentaries that explored unusual competitions, including the tumultuous experiences of a group of students heading to the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO). One competitor suffering from a neuro-developmental disorder that, for some occult reason, fosters mathematical genius became the springboard for Matthews’ and screenwriter James Graham’s fictional A Brilliant Young Mind.

The Yorkshire-born teenage math genius Nathan (nicely performed by Asa Butterfield of Hugo fame) is an autistic savant who is painfully shy, abhors physical contact of any kind and is obsessive about the placement of his food on his dish (no food can touch another), among other compulsions. After witnessing the death of his beloved father in a car crash as a young child, his psychic hurdles burgeoned, affecting not only himself but also his loving mother Julie (Oscar-nominated Sally Hawkins of Blue Jasmine), who is burdened by her son, grieving for her late husband, and terribly alone.

Still, Nathan finds joy in complex math problems that he creates and solves. Enter non-traditional teacher Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall), who becomes Nathan’s special math mentor. Mr. Humphreys is battling multiple sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder, and in this earnest film that’s a bond (admittedly unspoken) between instructor and pupil. It’s implied that “we’re all damaged, but in different ways, and we should all celebrate our unique abilities and personhood.” It also soon becomes clear—even before the parties have met—that Mr. Humphreys and Julie will come together, with the added virtue that Nathan will have a permanent loving father figure.

But first Nathan gets a shot at competing in the prestigious International Math Olympiad, winning a place on the U.K.'s national team that travels to a training camp in Taiwan, under the tenure of demanding, no-nonsense leader Richard (the always excellent Eddie Marsan).

The experience is life-altering. For starters, Nathan is surrounded by math geeks who are as impressive as he and, more important, now for the first time he feels attracted to a girl. It’s his Chinese competitor Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), and his feelings only escalate when the team returns to Trinity College, Cambridge, where the competition is held. Perhaps, it’s a quibble, but would an autistic youngster who can’t tolerate touching anyone evolve in this way? But given the imaginative universe in which this film resides, love can conquer all mental illness. Going back decades, remember David and Lisa and in 1990 Awakenings?

Without revealing the competition’s outcome, suffice it to say Nathan has learned life-lessons that are far more important than the results of a math contest. The film’s lack of momentum doesn’t help.

Still, it offers a thought-provoking glimpse into the brutal world of high-level math competitions, from the public display of students’ test scores during training to the tough love (some might call it abusive) pedagogical strategies employed by the teacher in a classroom of young students who define their identity—their self-worth—first through the instructor’s approval and then making it to the competition. It’s great for the winners, not so much for those who don’t make the final cut. Jake Davies captures the anguish of one such student.

The layers of heated competition coupled with warm camaraderie among the contestants are also nicely rendered. Jo Yang is a standout as the young competitor who’s drawn to Nathan and simultaneously aware of her culture’s rigid expectations regarding appropriate behavior for a girl who is also, not coincidentally, the niece of one of the competition’s administrators. She suspects she’s in the running thanks to nepotism.

The acting can’t be faulted and BAFTA-winning Matthews has pulled together a top-notch cast. Too bad this heartfelt film feels so been there, done that.

Click here for cast and crew information.