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Brilliant Young Mind (X+Y), A
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by Jay Seaver

"Doesn't entirely add up."
3 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2015: This winter, when someone made a comment on there being TWO biographies of mathematical geniuses up for awards, I responded that after an eternity of movies about poets and musicians whose genius apparently made up for their being substance-abusing jerks to those who cared about them, folks in the sciences were due. I do worry that if enough show up to fall into their own pattern, they'll look something like this; after all, "A Brilliant Young Mind" (aka "X + Y") already kind of feels kind of formulaic.

The genius in this case is Nathan Ellis, diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum when he was younger, and always more with his father Michael (Martin McCann) than his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) - a situation only exacerbated when his father dies. As a young teenager (Asa Butterfield), he's tutored by an unconventional teacher (Rafe Spall), who motivates Nathan with a chance at the International Mathematics Olympiad, and when he makes that team, there's a trip to Taiwan where he makes friends with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), one of the Chinese team members

Man, there were no trips to freaking Taiwan (without any binding competition, even) when I was on the math team in high school! This doesn't exactly make me doubt its based-on-a-true-story bona fides, but there are certainly moments that feel like embellishment and wish-fulfillment. I'm not sure that I really ever bought into the sole girls on both the English and Chinese teams each being drawn to Nathan, for instance, and the number of complicated things he picks up easily is awfully high. The last act especially seems to be full of contrivances designed to make the film more obviously dramatic.

That's not to say teenagers doing math competitively is inherently cinematic - it's tense for the participants and maybe eerie for the spectators, but not exactly visual either way. It is somewhat disappointing that director Morgan Matthews and writer James Graham don't really do much to try and convey how mathematics can be beautiful and problem solving can be exciting; not only does it make the discipline seem to be only fit for autistic or antisocial outliers, but it denies Nathan any sort of internal life that the audience can latch onto. Fine enough when the point of a scene is that he can drive Julie to her wit's end, less so when she's not around and he's just a cipher.

Some of that's intentional, and I suppose Asa Butterfield is probably on the right track in seeming to act as little as possible with Nathan through much of the movie. It's not as though he's actually wooden or unbelievable, but the way that the story is built and performed, it's often almost like Nathan has two modes: withdrawn but approaching functionality, except around his mother, where he's like a passive-aggressive version of that brat from The Babadook. It seems a little off, even beyond the character being autistic.

On the other hand, there's Sally Hawkins, who reliably makes just about every film she's in better, and this is no exception. For as much as Nathan might be hard to get a handle on, Julie and her upbeat dedication in the face of a particularly difficult patenting challenge cocoa with the audience, and her easy rapport with Rafe Spall (playing Nathan's MS-afflicted tutor) makes I it easier to use him as a measuring stick for Eddie Marsan's team coach, a somewhat chips figure that suggests these young math prodigies never really grow out of their awkwardness.

I feel like I shouldn't complain about some of these things; this isn't a bad movie, and if it seems to hew too close to the conventional narrative, it's likely because that is often the true one. It's just a bit hard to shake the feeling that there's a tug of war going on in this movie between Nathan and his peers being portrayed as individual kids and oddities, with the latter too often having the upper hand.

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originally posted: 05/13/15 10:09:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival For more in the 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

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  11-Sep-2015 (NR)

  13-Mar-2015 (12A)
  DVD: 13-Jul-2015


Directed by
  Morgan Matthews

Written by
  James Graham

  Asa Butterfield
  Sally Hawkins
  Rafe Spall
  Eddie Marsan
  Jo Yang
  Percelle Ascott

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