This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, when the film was titled “X + Y.” It goes into limited release today.
There’s something impossibly charming about Morgan Matthews’ “ A Brilliant Young Mind,” his debut as a fictional feature-length narrative director. Much like the film’s core message and encompassing theme, this charm doesn’t come with an equation that leads to an easy solution, which only amplifies our satisfaction that much more. We do know, however, where the charm doesn’t come from: James Graham’s screenplay, full of simplistic formulas designed to turn on the waterworks and dip the picture in sweet, sentimental, syrup until it begins to shrivel up from all the glop. With the scales of sappiness too unbalanced, “A Brilliant Young Mind” is prevented from entering the higher echelons of family dramas explored from a child’s perspective. It’s no “About A Boy” or “Hugo,” but it still manages to rise well above the likes of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and defy expectations.
Math prodigy Nathan (Edward Baker-Close) is a special boy. He finds more enjoyment with discerning patterns and exploring the nature of mathematics than playing with toys. His peculiar social awkwardness and introverted personality are chalked up to early signs of autism, which begins to worry his mom Julie (Sally Hawkins) and dad Michael (Martin McCann), causing them to spend every possible minute with Nathan. The boy would rather spend time with the dad who sticks French fries up his nose, than the mom who can’t stop worrying about him. But one morning, an arbitrary accident challenges Nathan’s notions of mathematical reasoning. A car accident ends his dad’s life, and Nathan withdraws further into his shell. His mother tries everything possible to reach him, even through math. “You’re not clever enough,” Nathan tells his mother, closing the door on her attempts to bond. So, she enrolls him with private lessons from ex-child-prodigy-turned-pot-smoking-professor-with-MS, Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), in an attempt to make him focus on what he loves.
Voice over of mathematical equations turns into a montage of passing time, and we see Nathan as a timid teenager (Asa Butterfield), numb to his mother’s loneliness and buried in Math books. “Bit of a weird one,” as Humphreys calls him. The professor is grooming Nathan for the International Mathematics Olympiad in Cambridge, and Nathan qualifies for the try-outs, which will be conducted at a math-camp excursion in Taiwan. Sounds like a stretch, we know, but it works. Leaving a distressed mother behind, Nathan reluctantly agrees to travel across the world to compete for one of six positions to represent the U.K. Under the supervision of Richard (Eddie Marsan), Humphreys’ old teacher, Nathan begins to adapt. Along the way, he meets Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) and Luke (Jake Davies), two people who make an indelible impression on him, for entirely different reasons.
One of the most compelling aspects of “A Brilliant Young Mind” is that it’s not just about one protagonist, but a number of interesting people. Nathan is certainly the focal point, and Butterfield’s performance is infused with a grace, sensitivity, and gentleness that shines a bright light on his future, but the film is also about a mother battling with loneliness, a professor dealing with various addictions, a boy battling with an overpowering condition, and a young girl torn between pleasing her family and proving her intellect. With a keen eye for warm moments and a patient tempo, Matthews gives enough attention to all of these characters in order for each plight to resonate without feeling cluttered. The troupe of actors Matthews assembled to personify all of these characters are his biggest positive integers. Hawkins pulls the heartstrings, Spall and Marsan tickle the funny bone, Yang captivates, and it’s impossible to forget Davies’ authentic, emotional turn. The adults bring their experience (Spall and Hawkins, especially, take turns in almost running away with the whole film), and the children pour their hearts out.
But, “A Brilliant Young Mind” shines in other ways as well. Colors play an important role in understanding Nathan’s personality, and with a slick balance of cinematography and editing, Danny Cohen and Peter Lambert do well to wordlessly heighten the experience. Without the performances and splash of style as support, the film would collapse, because the story is indisputably boxed inside a square of standard dimensions. When it comes to some of the words, and the development of a few scenes towards the finale, the syrupy dialogue becomes a little too sticky and flavorless. Ultimately, however, Matthews has made a thoroughly successful switch from documentary filmmaking to emotionally captivating fiction. “A Brilliant Young Mind” will multiply your expectations and charm your pants off, resulting in a teary-eyed emotional rollercoaster full of life’s stirring profundities. [B-]