“A Brilliant Young Mind”, which was released as “X + Y” in UK early in this year, initially looks like one of those sappy feel-good movies. First, we have a smart but socially awkward teenager who is going to face the first major intellectual challenge of his life, and then we also watch his another challenge as he encounters what may be his first chance of romance. The movie finds a sincere way of deriving genuine emotions from its seemingly predictable plot equations, and it comes to us as a warm, touching drama about an autistic boy who begins to learn about matters of heart.
Even when he was very young, Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield, who has grown up a lot since “Hugo” (2011)) was not an ordinary kid, and he already showed several clear signs of autism when his parents took him to a child psychiatrist. When the psychiatrist showed young Nathan a big dinosaur doll and asked him whether he was scared by it, Nathan phlegmatically replied that he was not scared because Stegosaurus is not a carnivore animal, and that was more than enough for the psychiatrist to give his final diagnosis to Nathan’s parents later.
Since his father Michael (Martin McCann) passed away due to an unfortunate accident, his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) has paid more care and attention to Nathan for years, but it is often difficult for her to live with her son who is usually occupied with mathematics while stubbornly sticking to the rigid patterns of his daily life. For instance, he always wants to get the same breakfast in the same shape at the same time, and then we have a painfully humorous moment at a Chinese restaurant when Julie is frustrated to find that she cannot get the exact quantity of shrimp fries as wanted by her son. 7 is good, but it should not be 6 or 8 just because they are not prime number.
As he begins his first year at a local lower secondary school, Nathan is introduced to Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a math teacher who was once a promising prodigy just like Nathan but has been going down in his life since that due to the early onset of multiple sclerosis. With Martin’s encouragement, Nathan comes to take the test for selecting the candidates for the upcoming International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), and then he is notified that he is chosen as one of the candidates. That means he will go to Taiwan along with other candidates for the joint training session, which will be followed by the final selection of the team members to participate in the IMO held in Cambridge.
During their stay in Taipei, Nathan and other British team members are led by Richard (Eddie Marsan), a jolly but competitive math teacher who incidentally knew Martin during their old days. On the first day, Richard introduces his students to the Chinese team, who will be their biggest competitor considering that the Chinese team has won gold medals during last six years. Richard’s students study together with the Chinese students in one classroom, and they are respectively paired with each member of the Chinese team. In case of Nathan, he happens to be paired with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a sweet girl who is also a niece of the Chinese team teacher.
While Taipei looks quite alien to him and he is still shy and awkward as usual, Nathan gets accustomed to this new environment, and he also finds himself attracted to Mei. As they spend more time with each other, it is apparent that there is a mutual feeling growing between these two smart teenagers, and Asa Butterfield and his co-star Jo Yang have a number of tender scenes as their characters tentatively get closer to each other during their private time.
The movie also focuses closely on the competitive mood surrounding them and others. The director Morgan Matthews and the screenplay writer James Graham did a good job of not making our heads dizzy with all those mathematical figures on the blackboard. Ably conveying his character’s innocence and intelligence behind his introverted attitude, Butterfield has a good scene when Nathan is asked to solve one difficult problem in front of others. He does not look confident at first, but he soon gains his confidence, and Butterfield looks spontaneous while his character moves from one point to another in his logic process.
As Nathan’s fellow prodigies, the other young actors including Alex Lawther (he previously played young Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” (2014), by the way) and Jake Davies are believable in their performances, and they took me back to my personal memories of the 2000 IMO held in the KAIST campus. While I merely walked around the fringe of that international event, I often came across foreign teenagers not so different from Nathan and other adolescent characters in the film, and I remember well how I spent one curious evening while simply observing and hanging around a bunch of European kids. They might be nerds or geeks, but they surely knew how to have a fun for themselves, and I was glad that they did not deny my nutty curiosity during that short but memorable time. Where are they now, I wonder?
While moving onto its third act revolving around the IMO held in Cambridge, the movie takes a couple of clichéd dramatic turns, but it keeps its heart intact as eventually arriving at its heartfelt finale. Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Martin McCann, and Sally Hawkins are dependable in their supporting performances, and Hawkins is especially poignant when Julie gets a chance to talk more openly with her dear son. She is not smart enough for him, but she can tell him one or two things about human feelings he struggles to process, and Hawkins and Butterfield deftly handle the sentiments flowing between their characters while never making the scene too sentimental.
“A Brilliant Young Mind” was partially inspired by the real-life story of Daniel Lightwing, who appeared along with his British IMO team members in Matthews’ 2007 documentary “Beautiful Young Minds”. Although he did meet the love of his life as preparing for the 2006 IMO, many things in the movie are entirely fictional (I heard that both of his parents are very much alive, for example), and the movie thankfully does not emphasize its real-life inspiration to us. It works as a good story above all, and I am fine with that.