"A Brilliant Young Mind" is not the film you think it is. It's better.
Yes, this story of the emotional complexities faced by a teenage math prodigy (Asa Butterfield, ably supported by top British actors Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan) is the accessible, affecting coming-of-age narrative you expect it to be. But it is something more as well.
The dramatic directing debut of veteran British documentarian Morgan Matthews, "A Brilliant Young Mind" doesn't fit into any familiar inspirational box. Many of its characters are complex, contrary individuals who are not even close to being comfortable in their own skins, and this film refuses to shortchange how frustratingly edgy and difficult they are to interact with.
Ably scripted by James Graham, "A Brilliant Young Mind" was inspired by one of Matthews' most successful documentaries, "Beautiful Young Minds," which followed a group of British students set to participate in the International Mathematics Olympiad.
The focus of this fictional film is young Nathan Ellis, splendidly played by the already experienced Butterfield, previously seen in "Hugo," "Ender's Game" and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."
Nathan is introduced as a lurching 16-year-old looking awkward and ill at ease as he walks in the rain and says in voice-over, "because I don't talk much, people think I don't have anything to say. I have a lot to say. I'm just afraid to say it."
"A Brilliant Young Mind" then flashes back seven years to Nathan as a shy 9-year-old (a fine Edward Baker-Close) being examined by an expert as his worried parents, Julie (Sally Hawkins) and Michael (Martin McCann), look on.
Nathan, a serious lad who relishes patterns in all things, is diagnosed as having a form of aphasia as well as registering on the autism spectrum. He's described as "a unique young man with gifts that come with big challenges," a point his easygoing father makes with good humor when he tells the boy he's got "special powers," kind of like a comic book hero.
Nathan's relationship with his mother, however, is more fraught, especially as he grows older. Next door to phobic about human contact, he refuses to hug her and, in an especially painful scene, even refuses to hold her hand. (Hawkins, a veteran of several Mike Leigh films, is especially good at making her emotions intense but real.)
As an obsessive teenager with zero social skills, Nathan is the kind of kid who will refuse to eat a lunch of prawn balls if the order does not add up to a prime number. Direct to a fault, he is almost savage in his willingness to give his mother a hard time. It's a tribute to Butterfield's gifts that we still care about Nathan despite it all.
At her wits' end with her son and alive to his fascination with what the British refer to as "maths," mother Julie connects him with Martin Humphreys, a math tutor who is no walk in the park himself.
As acerbically played by Spall, Martin is a bit of an unmotivated mess, a profane former math prodigy who is coping with the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis. He and Nathan circle each other warily at first, but the teenager's deepening interest in the International Mathematics Olympiad, which Martin is a veteran of, creates a bond.
Nathan's math skills lead him and other youthful whizzes to a training camp in Taiwan, where he is to be prepped for a possible spot on the British IMO team lead by the demanding Richard Grieve (Marsan), an experience that proves unexpected in several ways.
For one thing, Nathan meets kindred spirits, other kids as offbeat as he is, people who don't think calming yourself down by reciting Fibonacci numbers is strange at all. (Luke Shelton is affecting as one of the group's more difficult members.)
Also, because the British team trains with the Chinese, Nathan is paired at random with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a young woman who is his equal in skills albeit with a very different persona. What transpires when mathematics and personalities mix and the burdens of being different are among the dramas that "A Brilliant Young Mind" gracefully unfolds.
'A Brilliant Young Mind'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles