Hardy said mathematics is a young man’s game and the world still believes him.
This should therefore be Nathan Ellis’s time to shine. However, the young math
whiz will always feel out of place in the world, even if he lands a spot on the
UK International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) team in Morgan Matthews’ A Brilliant Young Mind (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
is “on the spectrum” to use the film’s preferred term for autism. He has a
savant like talent for recognizing patterns, but human relationships are almost
beyond his grasp. His father Michael was the only one the lad ever opened up
to. Unfortunately, he was killed well before his time in an auto accident (it
kind of looks like it was his fault, if that mitigates the tragedy for you).
Regardless, his grieving mother Julie is now stuck raising a temperamental son,
who refuses to let her touch him.
the cold shoulder he is oblivious of, Julie Ellis devotes herself to Nathan and
his math-based obsessive compulsions. She finally gets a break when Martin
Humphreys agrees to tutor Ellis, with an eye towards the IMO. He too once
competed at the Olympiad, but was undone by his self-sabotage and the onset of
his MS. Somehow, Humphreys maybe gets through to Ellis just a little bit. There
is also a burgeoning attraction between him and Julie Ellis, but he does not
feel he can pursue it. Eventually, Ellis will join the other prospective UK
team members to train in Taipei with other national teams. It is there that he
will meet the charming young Zhang Mei from the Chinese team, who will get past
even more of his defenses, much to his arrested adolescent confusion.
A Brilliant Young
inspired by Matthews’ IMO documentary Beautiful
Young Minds, which explicitly invokes the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind. Clearly, title
originality was not a priority. Regardless, there is plenty of room for another
film that takes maths (as they say in Britain) seriously.
building a film around a confoundedly reserved character like Ellis is a
challenge Matthews never fully licks. Asa Butterfield (a.k.a. Ender Wiggins, who
arguably might be a tad on the spectrum himself) is actually quite convincing
as Ellis, but it is mostly a one-note give-you-nothing performance. That’s a
reality the film scrupulously observes, but it makes it feel wildly unbalanced,
because everyone around him is so much more interesting.
Yang is wonderfully smart and sensitive as Zhang Mei, somehow developing
chemistry with someone who hasn’t any of his own. However, Rafe Spall really
lowers the emotional boom during the scenes in which he wrestles with the
indignities of his progressively worsening condition. Sally Hawkins also makes
you ache for Julie Ellis, to the point that you would forgive her for resorting
to a murder-suicide pact. Eddie Marsan also does his thing as the slightly obnoxious,
but rather shrewd UK coach.
There are some truly fine performances in ABYM, but James Graham’s screenplay
trots out way too many clichés. Let’s be honest, everyone is doing great if we
can believe Zhang Mei is interested in Ellis. Adding another jealous UK team
member is really pushing it, but it presents an easy way to advance the action.
Still, the scenes in Taipei look great and take Ellis out of his comfort zone
in a way that we can believe will be healthy for him. Mostly recommended for
those who appreciate watching a cast of fine British character actors, A Brilliant Young Mind opens this Friday
(9/11) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.
Labels: British Cinema, Eddie Marsan, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins