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Life-Affirming A Brilliant Young Mind Boasts Riches Aplenty

  • Debbie Holloway Contributing Writer
  • 2015 10 Sep
Life-Affirming <i>A Brilliant Young Mind</i> Boasts Riches Aplenty

Release Date: September 11, 2015 (limited)
Rating: Unrated
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Run Time: 111 minutes
Director: Morgan Matthews
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Martin McCann, Jo Yang

Many poignant films have been made about the plight of the misunderstood young genius. Just last year, The Imitation Game (Oscar winner for best Adapted Screenplay) gave us a peek into the life of Alan Turing, the cryptanalyst who helped break the Nazi code during WWII. A Brilliant Young Mind (released in the UK last year under the title X+Y) follows, in many ways, in that same vein. Boy has difficulty interacting with the world around him, so retreats into study. Boy faces a new chapter of life, with new types of people and new challenges. Boy learns something about himself.

But A Brilliant Young Mind, while it may strike a chord reminiscent of films like A Beautiful Mind, is completely and beautifully its own film. In a world where it’s still so difficult to excel if one is different in any way, this film gracefully teaches us a little about mental and physical struggles, grief, and what it means to be humans together, even when we don't always understand each other.

The film begins with narration by Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield, Ender’s Game), a British teenage boy diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and having synesthesia, a special sensitivity to light and color. He is a quiet boy, not always voicing what he thinks or feels. But, he contends, "I have a lot to say."

Through a series of (well-timed) flashbacks, we learn about a tragedy that strikes Nathan's family when he is young, and how he and his mother learn to cope with each other in the years that follow. Julie Ellis (the ever-angelic Sally Hawkins, Paddington) is a single mother who's both wholly devoted to and perpetually perplexed and wounded by her unique son. Warm and nurturing, she takes to heart every time Nathan refuses to hold her hand or return her calls; she hurts when he berates her for messing up their strict dinner regimen, and when he looks down on her cleverness because she failed out of math when she was younger.

Math, you see, is Nathan's solace and his joy. Human interaction is difficult and confusing. Like many on the autism spectrum, Nathan dislikes physical touch and has trouble dealing with changes in routine. But in math, tutored by Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall, What If) he excels, and finds an outlet for his "super powers"; that is, for the way his brain works.

Humphreys, a former math whiz now struggling with addiction and depression due to his advancing multiple sclerosis, is such a dedicated tutor to Nathan in large part because he regrets his own failures and wants Nathan to succeed where he did not. He helps Nathan study for the International Mathematical Olympiad, and then he and Julie send Nathan off to Taiwan to train with the other candidates.

While Nathan is at camp, he, his mother, and Humphreys are all faced with new, nerve-wracking challenges that test each of them in different ways. From the UK, to Taiwan and back again, the film follows Nathan ever closer toward his goal of winning medals at the IMO, all while never feeling like a "competition" movie. We know that something much larger is at stake than who wins and who loses.

Ultimately, the film is never really about a boy training to win a math competition. And though the movie features a glimpse of romance, including a peek at first love, it's not about that either. It's about a family learning how to be a family. It's a story of a mother and son learning how to heal from their wounds, and to speak one another's language. A Brilliant Young Mind is the tale of a boy beginning to understand himself and those who love him, learning to do things that are hard for him, and to hold onto the people he cares for the most.

The movie is, for many of us, a window into a world we may know nothing about. What's it like to be - or be close to -  someone on the autism spectrum? What's it like to have a gradually debilitating disease, or a drug addiction? Truly, there are too many important themes and heartfelt moments to list and dissect in one review, and Director Morgan Matthews and writer James Graham have sensitively and artfully given us insight into these life-altering issues.

Never preachy, never heavy-handed, A Brilliant Young Mind's gentle script, powerful direction, and intimate cinematography evoke moments of both laughter and tears. Nathan's joys become our joys. We feel his sorrows and struggles as our own. And hopefully after watching this film (based loosely on real-life mathematician Daniel Lightwing) we can all bring more empathy, more love and understanding to our own relationships.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Characters are shown drinking wine. Teenagers and one teacher at school are shown smoking (possibly cannabis). A man is shown struggling with prescription drug abuse and addiction. A man is shown at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. 
  • Language/Profanity: A few sh--’s and f---’s, and other mild swearing.
  • Sex/Nudity: A man references a disease which causes him to be sexually impotent. A man and a woman kiss a few times, and a teenage couple kiss, hold hands, and cuddle in bed.
  • Violent/Frightening/Intense: A fatal car crash is shown multiple times, from the inside of the car being hit. A small amount of blood is shown. A teenage boy engaged in self-harm, and we briefly see bloody marks on his arm.

Publication date: September 11, 2015