Thursday, September 17, 2015

The troubled life of a math whiz

A Brilliant Young Mind tells an affecting story.

The superior intelligence of math prodigy Nathan Elis (Asa Butterfield) separates him from the rest of the society. As a kid who also suffers from a variety of autism, Nathan may be even more isolated than an ordinary genius -- if there is such a thing.

As handled by director Morgan Matthews -- who previously made a documentary about kids such as Nathan -- the fictionalized A Brilliant Young Mind eventually involves Nathan in the International Mathematical Olympiad, a world competition for brainy high school students.

As the story develops, young Nathan travels to Taiwan to train and to determine whether his brilliance at discerning patterns will win him one of six slots on the British team.

Prior to his trip to Taiwan, Nathan is coached by a troubled teacher (Rafe Spall). An epic underachiever and former Olympiad competitor, Spall's Martin Humphreys suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disease that has diminished his hopes for excelling either in professional or personal realms.

Nathan's story hinges on a terrible loss. Early on, his father (Martin McCann) dies in an automobile accident; Nathan's condition worsens, and his relationship with his mother (Sally Hawkins) is made more difficult by the fact that Nathan can't bear to be touched.

Hawkins' Julie appreciates Nathan's gift, but doesn't totally understand him. She encourages Nathan, but his inability to respond to her leaves her as isolated as her son.

Mom's also a bit tyrannized by Nathan's eccentricities. Among other things, Nathan insists that the shrimp balls in a carry-out dinner must add up to a prime number. The stability of his world depends on such things.

While training in Taiwan, Nathan meets a Chinese Olympian (Jo Yang) who takes a liking to him, and coaxes him out of his shell -- at least a little. Unlike Nathan, Jo's character believes there's more to life than numbers.

Butterfield (Hugo and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) doesn't short change Nathan's difficulties or inwardness, but suggests enough vulnerability to make us fearful that Nathan will be chewed up by a world that has little tolerance for his idiosyncratic compulsions.

Once on the Olympiad track, Nathan finds himself in an intensely competitive environment. The coach of the UK team (Eddie Marsan) demonstrates more interest in winning than in dealing with the personal issues of his charges. Marsan's character is no ogre, but he insists that his young charges be focused.

Flashback scenes between Nathan and his late father have a lovely, playful tenderness; they serve to make scenes between Nathan and his mother even more painful. She lacks the ease and humor with which Nathan's father approached his son.

Sensitive and willing to set formula aside at key moments, A Brilliant Young Mind tells a moving story about a shy genius who knows how smart he is -- and who also senses that his great "gift" may not be enough to make him happy.

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