A Brilliant Young Mind (Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, PG-13)

A Brilliant Young Mind 75It’s a good thing that Asa Butterfield’s performance as Nathan is strong, because he’s the only fully realized character in the film.


A Brilliant Young Mind 500

A Brilliant Young Mind is a teenage melodrama where the goal is a mathematics completion rather than the Homecoming Ball or the state football championship. It pushes all the expected buttons but does so reasonably skillfully, and a strong performance by Asa Butterfield as a mathematical prodigy helps carry the film through its many predictable moments.

A Brilliant Young Mind grew in part from director Morgan Matthews’ 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds, which focused on the British team for the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), a competition for precollege students. Several members of the British team were on the autistic spectrum, as is the central character of Nathan (Butterfield as a teenager, Edward Baker-Close as a 9-year-old) in A Brilliant Young Mind. Nathan has difficulty with the most ordinary social encounters, but he is fascinated with patterns and understands mathematics at a level far beyond his peers.

Fortunately, Nathan’s talent is discovered and he begins studying with a tutor, Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall). Humphreys was once a mathematical prodigy himself, but today is a sour fellow in a downward spiral due to physical difficulties (he has MS) and what appears to be untreated depression. Martin is basically Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting, in other words, in the first of several echoes of that film. No surprises in Martin and Nathan hitting it off, or that a few years later, Nathan is selected to try out for the British IMO team.

There are definite echoes of a sports film in A Brilliant Young Mind, as the young mathematicians train and compete for spots on the team while also navigating the shoals of life as a teenager. If you come to this film hoping to see some math done, unfortunately, you will leave disappointed—there’s lots of math talk (mainly voiceover reading the problems the students are working on) but very little in the way of actual problem solving or demonstrations.

It’s a good thing that Asa Butterfield’s performance as Nathan is strong, because he’s the only fully realized character in the film. Granted, stock characters are part of the toolkit for writing melodramas, but they can be more or less fully realized, and in this case Matthews and writer James Graham have gone for less. At best, it’s just something you have to accept in order to enjoy this type of film at all, overlooking the fact that the students competing for a spot on the British maths team include exactly one abrasive loudmouth (Luke, played by Jake Davies), one nice guy (Isaac, played by Alex Lawther), and one girl (Rebecca, played by Alexa Davies). Also standard, but unfortunate, is that Rebecca and the other featured female math student (Zhang Mei, played by Jo Yang) exist primarily to bring Alex out of his shell. At worst, this shorthand can be both lazy and offensive, as in the brief glimpse we get of Zhang Mei’s overbearing uncle. Luke is allowed to have an obsession with Monty Python, for heaven’s sake, a bit of business that could easily have been cut, but the girls don’t even get that much character development.

Sally Hawkins as Nathan’s mother Julie is stuck in yet another role where her primary job is to emote. She’s a great actress and does as much as anyone could with the role, but unfortunately is saddled with the task of playing a mother that always seems to get it wrong with her talented son. It’s clearly her, not him, because the male characters, including his father and tutor, get it right. Of course, Dad (Martin McCann) died in a tragic accident due to his own carelessness, so he hasn’t been around for most of Nathan’s life, but every flashback Nathan has of him is positive, while most of his interactions with his mother are unpleasant. Nathan’s tutor also “gets” Nathan right away, and gains his trust in a way that his mother, who takes care of him every day, does not.

Black audiences watching Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon noticed something that apparently escaped both white audiences and the white filmmakers—not only are all the black characters in that film peripheral, but everything bad happens because of them. A Brilliant Young Mind has a similar problem with women—they’re just not important except in relation to the male characters, and they frequently get it wrong anyway. As a female moviegoer, you come to expect this kind of gender inequality, but it’s always worth pointing out in the hopes that some day it will no longer pass without notice. | Sarah Boslaugh

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