Nathan (Asa Butterfield, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Hugo) doesn't really fit in. Anywhere. In fact, the only human being with whom he's ever really connected, his father, was killed in a car accident when he was nine-years-old.
Raised by a mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky), whose very touch causes him to flinch, Nathan is a brilliant math prodigy whose mind is dominated by a seemingly pronounced autism that renders him socially awkward, maddeningly methodical, and unable to connect with anyone or anything beyond the numbers that seem to envelope his every thought.
Originally released in the U.K. and on the festival circuit under the name X + Y, a name I happen to prefer as A Brilliant Young Mind practically demands comparison to Russell Crowe's similarly themed A Brilliant Mind. While the comparisons are understandable, they are ultimately misguided as this dramatic feature debut from BAFTA Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Matthews captures a unique voice all its own.
Inspired by true events, A Brilliant Young Mind tells the story of Nathan, whose brilliant young mind can't possibly mask the often heartwrenching challenges faced by a youth struggling to find a place to belong and struggling to decide if it really even matters. Asa Butterfield, so absolutely brilliant in the even more devastating The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, offers an aching vulnerability without compromising that overwhelming sense of detachment so often associated with individuals who have autism. While Butterfield has always had a bit of a detached quality about his performances, there's a magnificent depth here that far transcends anything he's ever shown on screen. Butterfield's Nathan is unflinching in his sense of bewilderment with the world, a world that gets even more rocked when his gift for Math leads to his placement on U.K. team for the International Mathematical Olympiad in Taiwan. It is in Taiwan where he encounters a spirit so gentle, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), that it's as if his soul becomes cracked open just enough to let her inside his world. While some may consider this relationship to be a tad precious given the rest of the film, it's a layer of warmth and innocence that works well within the body of the film and remains consistent within the often inexplicable world of autism where someone gets in where so many others have been left on the outside.
Sally Hawkins, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the British Independent Film Awards for her performance here, has always had a gift for playing emotionally honest yet quirky characters yet her performance here, much like Butterfield's, is remarkable in its depth and honesty. It reminded me of her performance in last year's Oscar-winning live-action short film The Phone Call. Hawkins beautifully and painfully and exhilaratingly portrays an experience both deeply intimate and universal as Julie, a mother whose love for her son is deep and yet it seems he has utterly no clue whatsoever. Hawkins captures that love's relentlessness and its overwhelming frustration, while giving us ever so fleeting moments of light that remind us why, far beyond being his mother, she refuses to ever give up. As seems to always be true of Hawkins, it's a masterful performance that deserves more awards attention than it's likely to receive here in the states.
Rafe Spall (Prometheus, Life of Pi), a Best Supporting Actor nominee in the British Independent Film Awards, gives a restrained and resonant performance as Martin, a cynical and worn out former Olympiad whose diagnosis with multiple sclerosis leaves him largely subsisting on an income as a math coach. Over time, Martin takes warms to both Julie and Nathan but for the most part the film avoids becoming overly maudlin in its sentimentality.
While A Brilliant Young Mind is inspired by true events covered by Matthews in his own documentary Beautiful Young Minds, the central character of Nathan is a fictitious character whose experiences are grounded within real experiences pulled from the International Mathematical Olympiad. Scripted by James Graham, A Brilliant Young Mind is at its most brilliant when it's portraying Nathan's inner journey and his awkward yet intimate and revealing struggles with relationships. Unfortunately, toward the end it seems as if there's been a wee bit of pressure applied to move toward a more market-friendly resolution and all the emotional complexity and honesty that marked much of the film gives way to a warm and fuzzy feeling that may be hard-earned yet isn't fully convincing.
Oscar-nominated D.P. Danny Cohen lenses the film refreshingly devoid of sentimentality yet filled to the brim with intimacy. As is so often the case with British films largely focused toward the family, A Brilliant Young Mind is noteworthy for its refusal to intelligently and sensitively handle difficult subjects without, for the most part, resorting to unnecessary distractions or Hollywood gimmicks. Currently in limited nationwide release with Samuel Goldwyn Films, A Brilliant Young Mind opens in Indianapolis on October 9th at Landmark's Keystone Art Cinema. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic