Review: 'A Brilliant Young Mind' Starring Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, and Rafe Spall

Morgan Matthews' A Brilliant Young Mind (formerly X + Y) is a film full of equations, calculations, and math formulas 99% of the world could never crack. In a way it's like a smaller scaled cousin of The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, centering on a young genius whose incredible intellect has set him outside of society's norm. While figuring out how to solve a complicated numerical problem requires very specific steps, finding the right emotional formula is less exact but can be surprisingly rewarding.

Asa Butterfield plays Nathan, an unusually gifted boy, obsessed with patterns, numbers, and finding the order in all things. We come to figure out early on that he's "on the spectrum", showing signs of Autism, and it poses a unique challenge to his blue collar parents, Julie (Sally Hawkins) and Michael (Martin McCann). Nathan's social awkwardness manifests in long periods of withdrawn silence, but his father finds ways to get the boy to open up, mostly by being silly and sticking French fries up his nose. But one day an accident takes Michael away, and disrupts the order that is Nathan's life in a way he can never understand.

With his mother burdened by loneliness and unable to communicate with her son, Nathan's intellectual needs are filled by professor Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a pot smoking former math Olympian with multiple sclerosis. It doesn't take him long to see Nathan's full potential, and enrolls him in the International Math Olympiad tryouts in Taiwan, where his world is thrown upside down once again.

After a painfully slow start, the film really opens up just as Nathan's world begins to open up to new possibilities. While his ability to decipher near-impossible patterns is crucial, the story really focuses on Nathan's emotional needs and of the people around him. And what he needs more than anything else is companionship; a chance to be a regular boy. At home he's an oddity whose intellect causes him to shun his own mother, “You’re not clever enough,” he tells her at one point.  But in Taiwan among a group of equal acumen, he's considered average at best, and needs to find something new within himself to be the best. We see him bond with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a Chinese competitor who helps him overcome social anxieties and break out of his shell. He also learns a thing or two about dealing with bullies, and how to open up his heart to love.

While James Graham's syrupy screenplay tugs at the heartstrings a little too hard at times, this is a film that largely benefits from the outpouring of emotion. Butterfield's performance is mostly a physical one, revealing much about Nathan's fears in simple looks and cautious movements. Hawkins and Spall are magic together, and it's a credit to them and Graham's script that their story is strong enough to be a completely separate movie. Yang brightens up every scene she shares with Butterfield, and Eddie Marsan provides solid comic relief as Nathan's pushy instructor.  Matthews makes up for the relatively modest size of his film with clever visual cues and splashes of color, all reflecting Nathan's mood. It's always touchy any time a film attempts to depict the realities of autism, but A Brilliant Young Mind figures out the equation is care, respect, and undeniable heart.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5