Although it suffers from a particularly boring U.S. release title, the English film A Brilliant Young Mind (originally X + Y) tells a nuanced and tender story of a mathematically gifted teenager who struggles to relate to those who love him. Asa Butterfield (Ender’s Game, Hugo) plays the young Nathan, who appears to have something akin to Asperger’s syndrome. Since the death of his father in a terrible car crash, the boy has retreated into his love of numbers, dreaming one day of winning a medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad, which is like the Super Bowl for high school mathletes.
Helping Nathan in his quest are his mom and tutor. These characters are the primary avenues through which the movie tries to show the social and emotional difficulties associated with Nathan’s autism. The mother (Sally Hawkins) appears to live a thankless and lonely life as she raises Nathan on her own, fixing his meals to exact mathematical specifications and driving him around to appointments and whatnot. His tutor (Rafe Spall), on the other hand, is something of a father figure, and the two share a warmer relationship. This is due, in part, because the tutor suffers from multiple sclerosis, and Nathan can relate to him in being different. They also speak the same mathematical language.
Structurally, the film feels sort of like a sports movie or Jean-Claude Van Damme karate flick. The young student shows promise, gets one-on-one training from a washed-up master, and goes into intense training only to realize he has to overcome some personal demon in order to achieve victory. Oh, and don’t forget the love interest. All of these things are in A Brilliant Young Mind, but the parts make up a different equation. At a high-level math camp for to-be Olympiad students, Nathan is confronted with the challenge of leaving England for Taiwan and competing with the world’s top students, the Chinese. Yet, in this stressful environment, the young introvert finds himself drawn to one of his rivals, a girl who’s anything but introverted and yet she’s just as clever as Nathan. Just as the young mathematician works on solving incredibly complex math problems, which the film makes surprisingly thrilling, he’s also trying to figure out what an old and perhaps cliche problem: what it means to love someone.
The film shows this endeavor with crisp camerawork from Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech), and Butterfield is able to convey an impressive range of emotions with just his eyes. Yet, A Brilliant Young Mind walks a strange line. It feels as though we get conflicting views of Nathan. Are we supposed to think of this boy as a John Nash-type genius figure, from the similarly titled film A Beautiful Mind? Or is he a gifted but rather normal kid? Indeed, Nathan only seems struggle, in regards to empathy, in his relationship with his mother. Other than that, even the handholding he has with his Chinese crush seems pretty normal in terms of onscreen teenage drama. While the film might be trying to humanize Nathan, A Brilliant Young Mind perhaps doesn’t quite give enough gravity to the difficulties posed by autism. Even so, the movie does keep in mind that many children are different but not gifted. We, and Nathan, are very aware he’s not one of them.
A Brilliant Young Mind is playing at the Uptown Theatre.