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    A Brilliant Young Mind (2015): Movie Review

    "A beautiful and effective drama on autism.”

    From his 2007 highly-acclaimed documentary called Beautiful Young Minds, Morgan Matthews tells a heart-warming story about an autistic math prodigy who finally learns to break loose from his introversion. Entitled A Brilliant Young Mind (previously X + Y), Morgan’s debut feature explores the intricacies of autism from both the afflicted and his loved ones while offering us a glimpse of the mystifying world of mathematics. 

    From a young age, Yorkshire-grown Nathan Ellis (Edward Baker-Close) has always been more obsessed with numbers and patterns than toys boys his age play. Admirably, he shares a tight bond with his father (Martin McCann) which his mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins), struggles to match. So when his dad dies in a car accident, Nathan becomes more withdrawn and unfriendly, even to the only parent left to him. Desperate for a warm connection with her son, Julie hires Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall) as his math tutor. A former International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) contestant himself, Martin sees the potential in Nathan and grooms him well.

    Years roll by and Nathan (now Asa Butterfield) has grown to be a tall young man, yet still self-absorbed and socially awkward. Martin successfully gets Nathan into the IMO pre-competition. With Martin’s genial but self-important old teacher, Richard (Eddie Marsan), Nathan goes to Taiwan for a math camp with the Chinese contenders where he will also compete for one of the positions to represent the UK. Far from the comforts of his home, Nathan will venture into unfamiliar territories, meeting different people in the process like the super-talented Rebecca (Alexa Davies), arrogant Luke (Jake Davies) and Chinese fling Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). 

    A Brilliant Young Mind is a standard family film; yet, despite being formulaic and predictable, it is sharply perceptive and immensely gratifying. It is positive and uplifting without sacrificing authenticity in its respectful portrayal of autism. It is a smart and sensitive drama, filled with empathy not only to its lead character but also to the people surrounding him. There are several figures involved but the narrative sufficiently gives time and attention to each that we feel and root for them. It is always honest, paying keen interest to every behavior and story.

    Julie is one of the most fascinating characters in the movie. She is lonely but tirelessly patient to her son who won’t even let her touch him or who constantly makes her feel that she is not good enough. She willingly and happily carries a mother’s burden and that alone pulls the heartstrings. Hawkins is stunning as Julie. She is solid and convincing, delivering the right sensibilities of a mother raising an autistic child.

    Martin Humphrey is another well-detailed figure in the film. His multiple sclerosis impeded his ambitions but through Nathan, he finds new hope and romance. Similarly, Nathan’s coach Richard also has dreams of prestige and honor via the IMO. Spall as Martin and Marsan as Richard are both welcome doses of comic interludes. With his limited screen time, McCann manages to leave strong impression as Nathan’s father. Young stars Yang as the Chinese girl struggling to please her family and prove herself, Jake Davies as the intelligent yet bitter Olympiad hopeful, and Baker-Close as young Nathan are also impressive in their roles.

    In essence, the film is about Nathan Ellis and his behaviors brought about by his condition. After his father’s death, he has become sulky and aloof, appearing conceited and snobbish to the people around him. But inspecting closely, he is just afraid that he might say or do the wrong thing; thus, he would rather do nothing and distance himself. Butterfield, with his angelic face and self-absorbed air, powerfully captures the loneliness, aches and fears of Nathan, delivering them with rightful tenderness and sensitivity, and proving he is one of the best actors of his generation. 

    A Brilliant Young Mind is an insightful and stirring depiction of autism and how it influences the individuals involved. It is a story of many lives and the film beautifully intertwines them into an overwhelmingly heart-warming drama. It may be conventional but it remains effective and compelling.  Except for some snippets on standard test questions and calculations, it avoids probing deeply into the details of mathematics (so relax math-phobes). 

    Production companies: A BBC Films and BFI presentation in association with Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Screen Yorkshire, Lipsync Productions of an Origin Pictures, Minnow Films production 
    Cast: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Deng Laoshi, Edward Baker-Close 
    Director: Morgan Matthews 
    Screenwriter: James Graham 
    Producers: Laura Hastings-Smith, David M. Thompson, Ed Rubin 
    Executive producers: Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Lizzie Francke, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Hugo Heppell, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden 
    Director of photography: Danny Cohen 
    Production designer: Richard Bullock 
    Costume designer: Suzanne Cave 
    Editor: Peter Lambert 
    Music: Mearl


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