Much like its impenetrable hero, A Brilliant Young Mind is hard to fathom. It staggers beneath the weight of unnecessary sub-plots, a thoroughly unconvincing love story, and a hero who remains largely uncommunicative. And yet, it packs an emotional punch that only a cold-hearted cynic could dodge. Swirling at the center of director Morgan Matthews’ debut feature is a fragile humanity that demands our affection. Tender, observant, and brutally honest, A Brilliant Young Mind is a great excuse to believe that personal transformation is still possible.
While it might be trite to say that life is cruel, there’s no denying that it’s crueler to some than others. For Nathan (Asa Butterfield), life has been especially merciless. As a child, he’s identified as being “on the spectrum” for autism; a condition that makes him sensitive to light, sound, and, especially, touch. The only refuge from this over-stimulation is provided by his attentive father (Martin McCann), who understands the rhythms of Nathan’s unquiet mind. Fate, it seems, won’t allow Nathan this scant luxury, as a car accident kills his father and entrusts his delicate sensibilities to a mother (Sally Hawkins) he neither respects nor comprehends.
This tragedy instigates Nathan’s love affair with mathematics. In numbers, he finds comfort and certainty. He admits, “I find any communication of a non-mathematical nature very difficult.” That’s putting it mildly. Nathan finds it hard to communicate even the most basic thoughts, and recoils at the slightest emotional display. Having such a dispassionate hero is a huge burden on the script of playwright James Graham. Indeed, most of the film’s narrative excesses can be traced back to Graham’s efforts to compensate for Nathan’s detachment.
Luckily, there is a compelling goal to carry Nathan (and the audience) through the story. Nathan becomes obsessed with competing in the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO). We follow his quest to Taiwan, where he trains for the United Kingdom’s National team, under the tutelage of former math star and current burnout, Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall). He meets other nerds like himself, and forms a tenuous bond with his Taiwanese hostess and fellow IMO hopeful, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang).
An accomplished documentarian, director Morgan Matthews is to be commended for his authentic portrayal of Nathan’s disability. In fact, Matthews based the premise for his feature debut on a previous documentary about IMO trainees called Beautiful Young Minds. The love and admiration for his subjects is clear, which makes everything resonate with a refreshing naturalism. Butterfield’s performance as Nathan, which could have easily veered into stilted navel gazing, is infused with a delicate vulnerability that keeps us engaged, despite Nathan’s insensitivity. Furthering the authenticity is the exquisite cinematography of Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech), whose visual stylings take us inside the autistic mind. Flashing traffic signals and neon signage throb and blur in a saturated haze. Thanks to Matthews’ study direction, none of these flourishes come across as mannered or exploitative.
Most of the unnecessary flourishes are saved for Graham’s script. Sub-plots involving the strange relationship between Nathan’s mom and Mr. Humphreys, as well as some ill-advised drama surrounding another autistic IMO candidate, feel like superficial attempts to pad an otherwise thin storyline. There are the seeds of good ideas scattered about, but nothing is given the required time to grow. More troubling is the love affair between Zhang Mei and Nathan. Yang struggles with the material, which, combined with Butterfield’s required awkwardness, spells certain death for any compelling interactions. They may be cute together, but their relationship never feels less than perfunctory and listless.
Where A Brilliant Young Mind really finds its power are the moments between Nathan and his mother. Sally Hawkins’ brilliant turn as Nathan’s beleaguered mother is heartrending. Each attempt to save her drowning son is more demeaning and soul crushing than the last, and yet she never tires of taking the plunge. Spall does good work as the tortured mentor, and Eddie Marsan shines as a pragmatic math coach who comes closest to being the film’s villain. The filmmakers do a good job bringing these characters to life beyond the page, but none of them influence Nathan’s transformation in the story so much as wait for it to happen.
Despite all of its shortcomings and missteps, A Brilliant Young Mind is an emotional powerhouse. There is such honesty and vulnerability in everything that Nathan does it’s impossible not to root for him. He’s the consummate outsider, struggling to find his place in the world, only to realize he was there all along. Morgan Matthews transcends the typical coming-of-age story by giving us an atypical hero with both emotional and physical hurdles to clear. A Brilliant Young Mind tugs at our heartstrings with mathematical precision.