A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND
Director: Morgan Matthews
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Jo Yang, Eddie Marsan, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Martin McCann, Edward Baker-Close, Orion Lee
Running Time: 1:51
Release Date: 9/11/15 (limited); 9/25/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 24, 2015
At a fairly early point into A Brilliant Young Mind, it seems as if we know everything that will happen. To a degree, that suspicion is correct. The film does, indeed, go where we expect it to go, following a certain path of plot and character beats. The path may be predictable, but the priorities of the screenplay by James Graham are unexpected. We think we're watching one story at the start, but by the end of the film, we realize how much of that story is only the backdrop for the film's real story, which is about three lonely people who won't allow themselves or are unable to get too close to each other.
For one reason or another, each of these characters believes that such emotional proximity would either be pointless or require more than they're capable of giving. They try, though—oh, how they try. There's a wall between them, and Graham's screenplay is especially effective in the way it makes us believe we understand the nature of that barricade until the film's bait-and-switch climax.
Again, we think we're watching one story, and then, almost as if out of nowhere, the film forces us to reevaluate two of the central characters and the things that are actually standing between them. It's bit of a shock that the climax, which appears to be taking us down the familiar road of a clichéd Big Game, actually involves two characters talking—about themselves, their fears, their frustrations, their feelings of helplessness. That their conversation resonates on an emotional level shows just how successfully Graham has laid out these characters' stories, even as it appears that a different portion of this tale is the more important one.
After a brief narration from Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) in which the teenage boy explains that has difficulty communicating with people in non-mathematical terms, a prologue shows a 9-year-old Nathan (Edward Baker-Close) being diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. His parents Julie (Sally Hawkins) and Michael (Martin McCann) are shocked, although the boy's father takes the news with more optimism.
Soon after, Michael is telling his son during a car ride that the boy possesses "special powers" and that everything will be alright. That's when a truck plows into the car, killing Michael on impact.
Young Nathan escapes into mathematics, working on equations and proofs that aren't part of his homework. When Julie offers to help, Nathan informs her that she can't because she isn't "clever enough." When the Chinese restaurant gets his order wrong (His food must come in prime-numbered portions), he scolds his mother: "Everything you do is wrong." It hurts, but she keeps trying.
She decides to seek an advanced tutor for her gifted son at the local high school. Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), who suffers from multiple sclerosis, is the teacher—a man who is only slightly less bluntly honest than his student. Nathan is particularly interested in hearing that Martin was once on the United Kingdom's International Mathematics Olympiad team. Over the next several years, Nathan makes becoming a part of the team his top priority.
Here, of course, is the point at which we're certain we know where this is heading. Surely, Nathan will qualify to try out for the team, make the cut, and compete in the international competition. He will excel at math, impress his coach (Eddie Marsan), and, win or lose, prove that his condition isn't a handicap. He'll make friends amongst his teammates, such as the popular, affable nerd Isaac (Alex Lawther) and Luke (Jake Davies), who is also autistic. Maybe he'll even find a girlfriend, since the screenplay provides two possibilities: Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a qualifier for the Chinese team, and Rebecca (Alexa Davies), who is smitten with him.
Most of this is true, but Graham and director Morgan Matthews approach even the points that prove predictable with sensitivity and attention to these characters. The scenes of preparing for the competition do not matter as much as those involving Nathan slowly emerging from his social shell, and Butterfield is convincing in the way we can observe small cracks in that shell while still maintaining it.
They are tiny, believable steps, such as explaining a mathematical proof in front of others or opening up about his father to Mei while the two explore the sites of the city in Taiwan where preparation is being held. She tells him about the pressure she feels, too. In a moving series of scenes, Luke, whose story is seen as something of a complement to Nathan's, becomes ostracized from the group. One could see Luke's story as an overt manipulation, displaying what could become of Nathan if he doesn't—as one characters puts it—"adapt." There's something too empathetic about a moment between Nathan and Luke, as the teen assures him that a self-cutting ritual simply "got out of hand," for it to be that simple.
Back at home, Julie and Martin get closer, although, with his condition, there is only so far that their relationship will be able to progress. The performances in these subplots—the relationship and Martin coping with his illness—are vital, because the stories feel slightly extraneous. Spall is very good, especially in a late scene in which Martin confesses his fears for the future, and Hawkins effortlessly exudes a battle between patience and frustration as a mother who has almost resigned herself to living in the shadow of her son's father.
That relationship, between mother and son, becomes the most important and affecting one by the end of A Brilliant Young Mind. It sneaks up on us, as we realize what hasn't been but needs to be said. It's not a cure-all—just another tiny step in the right direction.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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