Wednesday, September 09, 2015

“A Brilliant Young Mind”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “A Brilliant Young Mind”, starring Asa Butterfield.


When a teenage boy is discovered to be a mathematical prodigy, does he have what it takes in order to compete in an international mathematics contest?


As an adolescent, Nathaniel (Butterfield) is impressive because of his mathematical superiority over not only his peers, but adults, as well.  But during childhood, he exhibited some rather odd behavior that caused him to be diagnosed with autism; part of the way in which this manifested itself was that he was withdrawn and incommunicative – but also, he had a heightened sensitivity to bright lights and colors in addition to a strong aversion to being physically touched.  As if growing up were not already challenging enough for young Nathaniel, he was also in a traffic accident which killed his father. 

All of this put immense pressure on Nathaniel’s patient, kindly mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) to raise her brainy but tortured son as a single parent.  Fortunately, she found some help in an unlikely source.  When Julie brought Nathaniel to a school where they could meet Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a teacher noted for his extraordinary mathematical skills, the man is impressed by the child’s potential and agrees to tutor him; they grow particularly close over the years, Humphreys almost taking on the unintended role of surrogate father.  

In his mid-teens, Nathaniel is encouraged by Humphreys to take a path he himself tried to follow when he was the young man’s age:  to compete in (and win) the International Mathematics Olympiad.  After studying diligently for the test, Nathaniel is informed he’s been accepted, but must go to a kind of boot camp in Taiwan where he and other British students will train with their Chinese counterparts.  With great trepidation, Nathaniel makes his first trip overseas, where he is teamed with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a sweet young student who, while quite bright, is not quite the math whiz either Nathaniel or the rest of the competitors are.  But when a romance blossoms between the two, will they be too distracted to follow through in the competition or can they focus on winning The Olympiad? 


The strength behind “A Brilliant Young Mind” lies in the performances – particularly that of Sally Hawkins, the constantly beset upon saintly mother who winds up engaging in something of a chaste romance of sorts with Humphreys, who is debilitated by Multiple Sclerosis.  Although Nathaniel’s character is clearly the protagonist in this movie, it is by far and away the character of Julie that garners most of the audience’s sympathies – largely due to the performance by Hawkins, who is able to balance strength and vulnerability in a most convincing way. 

That said, there is some of “A Brilliant Young Mind” that feels forced – and not just that it seems like a copycat version of “A Beautiful Mind”, right down to its embarrassingly similar title.  The ending of the movie is a bit too tidy and convenient; whether you believe the protagonist did the right thing (or more to the point, that the screenwriters made the best dramatic choice) will depend on where and with whom your sympathies lie.  An argument could be made that as the protagonist, Nathaniel did not do the most heroic thing because a heroic action requires a difficult choice that has a potentially negative impact on the life of the hero (and possibly others as well). 

For people who like a gentle story that relies on sentimentality as a crutch, “A Brilliant Young Mind” might well serve them.  While the filmmakers strive to give the disease of autism a face, a name and a sympathetic character for whom you can root, its point gets buried under tons of mawkish contrivances intended to drive home its message in a way that is not exactly subtle.  Nevertheless, the film insists that human life can maintain its meaning and dignity despite various obstacles that fate hurls at us; unfortunately, trying to tell such a story is difficult without being melodramatic. 

A Brilliant Young Mind (2014) on IMDb

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