Morgan Matthews’ film wants to be three things at once. A coming of age story about a young introverted genius, a familial drama about a mother and son after the father is killed in a violent car accident, and a sports drama only with math instead. The movie achieves all three without ever going truly in depth with any one narrative. It’s a crowd pleaser of a film, one that doesn’t linger too long on some of the weightier topics (including a character who lands somewhere on the Autistic spectrum who also self harms as a means of self-control).
Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is a socially awkward, math prodigy, who years later is still dealing with the sudden loss of his father, the only person who knew how to relate to him. Paired with the multiple sclerosis afflicted math teacher Martin (Rafe Spall) and with the help of his long suffering mother Julie (Sally Hawkins), he is able to find new confidence and independence when he lands a spot on the British squad at the International Mathematics Olympiad. Traveling the world in order to train he makes friendships and finds a circle of people where he’s accepted, and an environment where he won’t be made fun of for his intelligence or idiosyncrasies.
The most interesting portion of the film is when Nathan is sent to Taipei to study for the Olympiad and where the students are whittled down to teams of six, meaning that the competition is stiff and stressful on the young minds involved. It’s where Matthews is allowed to shoot his film in any sort of style that isn’t completely by the numbers, where colors are more vibrant and the story by James Graham more tightly written. There is a streamlined story for this middle portion of the film where Nathan is adapting, meeting girls who he forms strong bonds with, and growing to appreciate his brand of intellect. It’s also where he meets people like him, but more extroverted with their intelligence, and more likely to be bullied for it.
Where the film falters is the storylines with the adults in Nathan’s life. Julie is never given more to do that be frustrated with and saddened by Nathan’s inability to connect with her and his complete dismissal of her whenever she does something he deems idiotic. Neither character is ever portrayed to be all that sympathetic in these moments and the characters never get the chance to grow or learn from there aside from one or two scenes. Not every film needs to wrap storylines up tidily, but in a film like A Brilliant Young Mind that mines the conventionality of films that have come before it and match it beat for beat, it needs something to to tie up Julie and Nathan’s relationship so that we’re not just ending the film annoyed at how little respect Nathan gives her and frustrated over how Julie wouldn’t have learned to deal with Nathan’s emotional disconnect. Butterfield and Hawkins are both immensely talented (and Hawkins deserves another star making vehicle such as Happy-Go-Lucky now) but even they can’t sell us resolutions that haven’t been written.
Spall oddly enough is the one who get’s the meatiest role, even if his storyline seems as if it belongs in another film altogether. His battle with his worsening multiple sclerosis and how it affects his relationships in his life, or rather, his potential relationships, are moving and Spall does great work with them, but it isn’t given the amount of time it deserved to explore in full, and the storyline feels abruptly cut off right before the third act begins.
A Brilliant Young Mind is an inoffensive film, looking to please a broad audience and while it achieves its goals (it is pleasant enough to watch) there’s always a sense that it could have done more, reached further, and came up with something that spoke more of the troubles Nathan was facing along with Martin and his mother Julie. There was more to be said, leaving the film feeling overall a little flat.
A Brilliant Young Mind is out in limited release now.