Asa Butterfield, the adorable and talented child from "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas", "Hugo" and most recently "Ender's Game", stars in "A Brilliant Young Mind" as Nathan, a mathematics wizard diagnosed with aphasia, and on the cusp of autism. When the one person who understands him and his emotional limits best is taken from his life, Nathan struggles to forge new relationships, while his stricken mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins), deals with her son's uncaring ways.
Nathan's world is full of confusion and ineptitude with others. But numbers and mathematics give him solace, so that when he is placed in the care of a new instructor, Mr. Humphrys (Rafe Spall), a bond develops which saves Nathan and pushes him into the International Mathematics Olympiad. As a member of the UK National team, Nathan must travel to a training camp in Taiwan, supervised by Richard (Eddie Marsan), an overzealous leader hell-bent on the UK team winning the competition.
Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), the niece of the Chinese team's mentor, and a reluctant participant, is intrigued by Nathan. Their friendship grows into something more serious when all of the young mathematicians return to the UK for the final competition.
First-time feature filmmaker Morgan Matthews based this story on a documentary he had made about real-life students who shared some of the same afflictions as Nathan. He enlisted screenwriter James Graham to develop the script, which is extremely well crafted. Nathan doesn't speak a great deal, so Graham's dialogue is succinct, and very real --- very believable.
Much of "A Brilliant Young Mind" is conveyed through the outstanding acting of Butterfield and Hawkins. Because of Nathan's medical constraints, Butterfield simply cannot use his big expressive eyes as much as he normally would. Nathan is so restricted emotionally, thus curbing Butterfield's reactions to his co-stars. He is perfectly stoic and unresponsive, a challenge, I'm sure, for such a gifted, normally gregarious young actor.
Hawkins, who was so wonderful earlier this year as the mother, Mary Brown in "Paddington", is as impressive as she was in her Oscar-nominated role in "Blue Jasmine". As Julie, she is heartbreaking and amazingly strong at the same time. Adapting to the horrific change in her own life, plus caring for an emotionally-stunted, brilliant child proves again how formidable Hawkins is at her craft. Her scenes with Asa are incredibly heart-rendering, and, at times, painful to endure.
"A Brilliant Young Mind" is quite an accomplishment for Matthews. His selection of cinematographer Danny Cohen, who was nominated for an Academy Award for "The King's Speech", is telling in his ability as a filmmaker. This is a beautiful movie wrapped around a moving story --- one that should not be missed.
Opinion: See It Now!
Asa Butterfield was only 10 when he starred in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas", the acclaimed World War II drama about two young boys who form a friendship at a Nazi concentration camp. Three years later he was the title character in Martin Scorsese's 11-time Oscar-nominated "Hugo". Now at age 18, Butterfield plays Nathan Ellis, a math phenom with severe emotional limitations in the charming "A Brilliant Young Mind".
Nathan has a close relationship with his father, Michael (Martin McCann), but cannot bond in any way with his mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins). When tragedy strikes, and Nathan and his mother are left alone, his only outlet for happiness is his extraordinary ability with mathematics.
With the help of Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall), an MS-afflicted math teacher at his school, Nathan is entered into a match to qualify for the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO), along with other prodigies from Great Britain. (This is a real event dating back to 1959, first held in Romania. About 100 countries send up to six representatives annually).
But only six of the group can qualify, all under the tutelage of Richard (Eddie Marsan). When the six winners are selected, they travel to Taiwan for training, alongside a team from China. There Nathan meets Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a brilliant and beautiful Chinese math student, who takes a liking to Nathan, much to his confusion and consternation.
The remainder of the film deals with Nathan's ability to relate to this new person in his life, while tackling the challenges of the math competition, which takes place at Cambridge. All the while his mother still clings to the hope that she and her son can form a lasting bond.
The character of Nathan Ellis is based on a real-life teenaged boy with a "neurodevelopmental disorder", akin to autism and Asperger's, who was featured in director Morgan Matthews' documentary "Beautiful Young Minds". Matthews is a prolific documentary filmmaker in England, with six BAFTA nominations and two wins. He admits taking creative liberties with "A Brilliant Young Mind", a strategy that should allow this film to resonate with a wider audience. It is the feature-length debut of writer James Graham.
Butterfield tackles a difficult role with the confidence of a seasoned thespian. He does exemplary work showcasing Nathan's malady. When Nathan finally breaks through his emotional barrier with Julie, it is an exceptionally moving moment. Edward Baker-Close is convincing as the young Nathan, and the two actors bear a close physical resemblance emphasized by their brilliant blue eyes.
Hawkins is her typically remarkable self, bravely fighting off Julie's own despair, and eventually allowing her character some happiness in the form of the likeable Humphreys. Hawkins always elicits grace under pressure in her performances, an average woman for whom audiences find it easy to cheer.
Amusing and captivating on screen, Spall is the son of British actor Timothy Spall, the grumpy star of "Mr. Turner" (2014). And Marsan, a favorite of mine, has shined in such stellar films as "Vera Drake" and "Happy-Go-Lucky". Here his overzealous enthusiasm for the math challenge is a source of Nathan's anxiety during the final test.
The filmmakers, for maximum realism, wanted a Chinese-born actress for the part of Zhang Mei, and Yang, a China native, handles the role well. Zhang's persistence pursuing a romantic propensity towards Nathan is critical if he is to break free of his emotional shackles.
Cinematographer Danny Cohen is an Oscar nominee for "The King's Speech", and a four-time BAFTA nominee for that film, and "Les Miserables", among others.
No car chases, no bathroom humor, no special effects. Just a poignant story with an accomplished cast.
Opinion: See It Now!