A Brilliant Young Mind
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Eddie Marsan, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Martin McCann, Christina Low, Alexa Davies
Director: Morgan Matthews
Release Date: 09/25/15
By Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
It’s entirely possible that the world’s most brilliant mind is in the body of a child. And also imprisoned behind a veil of paralyzing awkwardness.
In A Brilliant Young Mind we’re introduced to a number of worthy candidates, all of whom are trying to out-awkward each other with cold facts, debilitating shyness and enough social tics they could be charted into “trigonometric identities,” or whatever that is.
Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is one of these young people. The British lad sees the world in geometry, algebra and calculus. He’s by all estimates a genius, yet he can barely function in the real world. When his mother orders take-out if the fish sticks and chips aren’t positioned symmetrically and in prime numbers then he flips out.
He’s guided by teacher Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall, son of Timothy), who suggests he participate in a mathematics olympiad for the most brilliant young pupils. Nathan takes the test, passes and soon finds himself in Taiwan studying with other mathletes his age. He gets a crude wake-up when his fried prawns are delivered in an eight-count container … so close to a prime number, but yet not.
The film dips into darker territory as the characters open up and reveal their even more fragile cores. One boy, Luke, is likely autistic, which leads to bullying even in these nerdy circles. A Chinese student that Nathan is paired with is harassed because her uncle is the director of the team. Nathan’s issue is just communicating on a basic level. He mumbles, recoils at the lightest touch and his eyes reveal sparkles of brilliant pain. This wounded kid is thrown into a new culture and he remarkably thrives, which breaks the heart of his mother (Sally Hawkins), who can’t seem to understand why he’ll open up to everyone but her.
Of course, the film all boils down to the math olympiad, but then it’s not that simple. It’s written with care and truth, and no “big game” sports climax will ever solve all the issues swirling around in this layered and pristinely textured script by James Graham. There is some cliche, including a “surprise car crash” still in the clamshell packaging and a race to the train station to get the girl, but even those conventions are given new spins, fresh perspectives.
The math is dense and confusing, and is barely explained outside of one sequence in which Nathan turns a card trick into a binary matrix. In other scenes the equations are just glossed over in broad strokes. I knew it was complex stuff, though, because the math problems had more letters than numbers, and brackets within brackets within brackets. “If truth is beauty and beauty is truth, then surely mathematics is the most beautiful thing in the world,” says an olympiad leader played by the great Eddie Marsan. I’ll take your word for it.
Although the surface of this coming-of-age story is rather blandly paced and acted, there are deeper currents of emotional agony that are running through this film. Scratch but a tiny bit down and it opens some terrifying places related to love, family, success and acceptance. But in the end, like math, it has an inherent beauty to all of it.