Strictly from a plot standpoint, Morgan Matthews’ film A Brilliant Young Mind sounds like a movie-of-the-week. Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a teenage math genius with Asperger’s syndrome, must confront a number of challenges to compete at the prestigious International Mathematics Olympiad.
To judge this film by its plot synopsis would be to shortchange it. The acting-by Butterfield, Sally Hawkins as his mother, and Rafe Spall as his mentor-is strong enough to make this film worth a look.
Nathan loses his father at an early age, and he deals with the trauma by rejecting change of any sort. He vetoes any gestures of affection such as hugs. Early scenes show mom Julie (Hawkins) struggling to make each day identical to the one before it.
Numbers, especially prime ones, are comforting to Nathan. They make sense to him when the rest of the world doesn’t. An unorthodox teacher, Mr. Humphries (Spall) takes a special interest in Nathan and his math abilities.
Thanks largely to his work with Mr. Humphries, Nathan lands a spot on Great Britain’s team at the International Mathematics Olympiad. This means he must travel from his home in London to the training camp in Taipei. He must also adapt to a completely different culture.
Nathan finds his squad leader (Eddie Marsan) to be a great help during the training camp. He spends a lot of time with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a young woman on the Chinese team. Zhang Mei has been assigned as a guide for Nathan, but many of their outings look suspiciously like fun.
When Nathan returns to London, he discovers the trip to Taipei has changed him. Suddenly, math isn’t the center of his life any more. People’s feelings matter to him more than they did. As an added complication, the Olympiad is just a few days away.
We’ve been swamped with films claiming to be based on or inspired by a true story. In this case, the true story is available for viewing on YouTube. It’s called Beautiful Young Minds (2007), and Matthews directed it as well.
Beautiful Young Minds covers the selection and training of the British team for the 2006 Olympiad, as well as the event itself. The team wins four silver medals and one bronze. A standout member of the team (and winner of a silver medal) is Daniel Lightwing, who is the inspiration for Nathan.
Comparing himself to Daniel and the other team members, director Matthews says he is a “Muggle”, while they are “Wizards”. He found their world sufficiently compelling to make it the basis for a fictional script.
The fiction was obvious to members of Daniel’s family. For one thing, Daniel’s father is alive and well. His teacher/ mentor, Miggy Biller, is a woman.
Asa Butterfield met with Daniel several times over the course of filming, and reports are that Daniel felt comfortable with him. Sally Hawkins also did a great deal of research for her role, working with parents of autistic children. Rafe Spall, whose character has MS, did research and also attended discussion groups of the MS Society.
All this work by the actors pays off. They truly seem to be living the roles, not playing them. Matthews’ work in documentaries serves him well here, because he is able to tell this story without becoming unduly sentimental.
I’m betting this film will steal your heart, but that’s just one Muggle’s opinion.
Theme: Hello, Kiddo
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