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A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND (2015) review

October 1, 2015

 

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written by: James Graham
produced by: David M. Thompson and Laura Hastings-Smith
directed by: Morgan Matthews
rating: not rated
runtime: 111 min. U.S.
release date: September 25, 2015 (limited) 

 

“A Brilliant Young Man” could’ve just been a story about a gifted boy on an academic journey to the Olympiad. That would’ve presented enough challenges and drama in and of itself, but instead screenwriter James Graham treats us to a complex screenplay, which is sensitively presented by director Morgan Matthews. It’s a coming-of-age story that includes autism and mathletes yet surprisingly avoids clichés. It is a film that is perceptive and quite stunning in the way it presents natural and real characters while sensitively examining themes of  helplessness, regret, loss and grief. 

Socially awkward teenager, Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) was hit with a huge loss at a young age when his father died in an accident in England. Already diagnosed with autism, which found Nathan withdrawn into a world of primary numbers and patterns, the young man mourns the parent he was closest to, while his mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins), longs to connect with her son. During middle school, Nathan’s brilliant mind is discovered and he is taken under the tutelage of Martin (Rafe Spall), a somewhat jaded teacher with M.S. who sees Nathan’s skills and believes in his potential and understands the boy’s social inhibitions.

 

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As the tentative Nathan develops a mentoring relationship with his idiosyncratic teacher, Martin readies the math whiz for a spot at the International Mathematical Olympiad with an exclusive group of his peers. Nathan qualifies and is soon sent to Taiwan with a busload of fellow brainiacs chaperoned by Richard (Eddie Marsan), a hard-charging teacher who knew Martin when they were young math prodigies.  Nathan’s English group is teamed with their main competitors from China, providing an opportunity to bond over equations and mathematical theories while building friendships.

For the first time in his life, Nathan is the little fish in a big pond of geniuses. He’s still special, but so are his peers around him, like piano-playing Rebecca (Alexa Davies),  natural leader Isaac (Alex Lawther) and Luke (Jake Davies), who covers his insecurity and anxiety with bullying. Nathan is paired with a Chinese study partner, Zhang Mei (vibrant newcomer, Jo Yang), a young girl who feels the weight of pressure from her family and the two soon form a close, needed friendship. Not only does Nathan feel the pressure of the competition, he’s also dealing with social and performance anxiety as well as newfound emotions that he doesn’t have a formula for.

This is not just another coming-of-age story about a math whiz kid. It may have some recognizable conventions of that particular subgenre, but it comes at them honestly and with pure intentions. Screenwriter James Graham and director Morgan Matthews (both of whom have primarily worked in television or documentaries, until now) are careful to focus on Nathan and those key figures in his life, presenting absorbing characters that draw us in. All of them have multi-dimensions, regardless of the cliché categories they fall into – such as: the struggling single mother with good intentions, the kind mentor/teacher with a scarred past and a kindred-spirit love interest who has  her own issues – yet all of them support, encourage and love our protagonist here in their own way.

 

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There are no throw away roles in a “Brilliant Young Mind” (also called “X+Y”, in some circles), all the prominent characters are naturally placed in the story with a clear purpose, but that doesn’t mean they’re not complex.  Actually, the talent assembled in this film – some of the best English actors working today – was the real draw for me. Sally Hawkins is always a delight, often adding palpable depth to her characters, which is what we find here with Linda. She’s just great here, as is Eddie Marsan, also a reliable attribute to any film. The surprise for me here was the nuances that Rafe Spall brought to a role that could’ve been entirely one-dimensional. There’s also an undeniably natural gradual chemistry that develops between Butterfield and Yang, who maneuver through awkwardness and tenderness in a believable manner. Each of these actors have great moments with Butterfield, who has grown into an actor who can confidently and unassumingly carry a film.

Another character that plays a pivotal role in Nathan’s life is his father Michael (Martin McCann), who is primarily shown in flashbacks as Nathan fondly recalls the crucial bond they had together when he was a boy. His father had a positive influence in Nathan’s life, offering needed levity and security during a time where his mother felt helpless.  The motor vehicle accident that takes Michael’s life is another pivotal moment in Nathan’s life, contributing to his isolating tendencies and disappearance into facts and figures. It’s a backstory that could’ve felt manipulative but instead adds a needed layer of depth and understanding for Nathan.

James Graham’s screenplay is attentive and sensitive to each and every character in “A Brilliant Young Man”.   He and director Morgan Matthews respect the inhabitants of their story, even handling a subplot of an understandable relationship between Julia and Martin, that would have felt forced in another movie.  But the actors are in good hands with material that offers them the opportunity to be open and vulnerable, in a film that provides an environment of touching integrity in its depiction of autism, parenthood and grief.

 

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RATING: ***

 

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