Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review: "A Brilliant Young Mind"

"A Brilliant Young Mind" is a sweet and sensitive tale, but it wants to be three sweet and sensitive tales -- maybe more. In exploring the world of an autistic teen boy who's also a math prodigy, the film gives into the temptation to have other figures in his life nudge him out of the frame, which diminishes him as a character.

It's still a lovely film about a troubled genius, along the lines of "A Beautiful Mind" or the more recent "Love & Mercy." I just wish the filmmakers were a little more disciplined in their storytelling choices.

Morgan Matthews is a veteran documentarian making his first foray into feature film directing, and screenwriter James Graham is a relative novice with credits in television. They make the sort of mistakes inexperienced movie-makers make, but show a deft touch toward building believable, relatable characters -- too many, in fact.

The movie's title everywhere but the U.S. is "x+y," which perhaps helps explain the movie's hazy focus. It's based on a documentary called "Beautiful Young Minds," about the International Mathematical Olympiad, also directed by Matthews.

Asa Butterfield plays Nathan Ellis, a Brit lad "on the spectrum" who has trouble connecting emotionally with others. He needs everything to be just so, from his food -- seven prawn balls, not nine! -- to his relationship with his mother (Sally Hawkins), whom he studiously keeps at a distance. His adoring father (Martin McCann) was killed years ago -- Edward Baker-Close plays Nathan as a child -- and he's been essentially floating above human contact since.

Rafe Spall plays Martin Humphreys, a former math prodigy himself, now stricken with MS and a crushing lack of self-worth, who takes Nathan under his wing and begins training him for the math Olympiad. Spall, who resembles a bearded Ryan Reynolds so much I actually thought it was him for the first half-hour or so, is tremendous in the role.

For awhile the film starts following him instead of Nathan, exploring his life away from the boy, and we grow confused. It's obvious Martin sees much of himself in Nathan, and has essentially devoted the entirety of his remaining ambition to seeing him succeed. Do we really need to follow Martin into group therapy sessions, where he lays out his doubts plain as paper? Or a burgeoning, ill-advised romance with Nathan's mom?

Similarly, once Nathan arrives in Taiwan for the math trials, the story sort of scatters into several pieces that, while engaging on their own, don't really fit together.
There is camaraderie and competition amongst the whiz kids, both within the British contingent and against the Chinese team and its adult captain, with whom Nathan's captain (the reliably nervy Eddie Marsan) has an enduring rivalry, barely concealed by convivial joshing.

One of the Brit boys, Luke (Jake Davies), seems to be the smartest and is certainly the boldest, but the others resent him, especially the more socially inclined Alex (Isaac Cooper). The power dynamic shifts this way and that, with Nathan as the neutral party. The team's lone female, Rebecca (Alexa Davies), clearly is attracted to him, but Nathan remains oblivious or unwilling to reciprocate.

Meanwhile, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) is the Chinese team captain's niece, and makes repeated attempts to ingratiate herself with Nathan. He gradually responds and a friendship forms. Meanwhile, his work on the math team suffers. Has she been conscripted to disorient the British team's top competitor?

So is "A Brilliant Young Mind" a story about math? Or love? Academic rivalries? Second chances? Autism? Father figures? All it once, it would seem.

I may not be a math genius, but I know a thing or two about movies, and one of the first equations one needs to know is that too much addition to the story always results in a deduction of value from the final result. This film is still a positive cinematic experience, but could've been exponentially better.

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