Movies about prodigies, especially math and science prodigies, are often also about triumphing over disabilities. Think of “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Theory of Everything.” Partly this is because if the films were just about the science, most people in the audience would quickly nod off.
“A Brilliant Young Mind” doesn’t go that route. Although it’s about a British teenage math prodigy diagnosed with pronounced autism, the film doesn’t skimp on the math. The mind of young Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) works in patterns, and we can see how this affects every aspect of his life, from working out complex equations to insisting that his dinner contain only a prime number of shrimp balls.
Nathan is a fictional character, although he and his world are derived, in part, from the documentary “Beautiful Young Minds,” also directed by Morgan Matthews, who makes his dramatic debut here. Like that film, this new one centers on the International Mathematical Olympiad, for which Nathan qualifies, and for which he travels to Taiwan for the final showdown.
The film, refreshingly, is less concerned with how Nathan performs in the competition than in how he navigates his way through the bramble of human interactions leading up to it. As a child, the only adult he truly connected with was his father (Martin McCann), who was killed in a car accident when Nathan (played in the early scenes by Edward Baker-Close) was 9. His doting mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins), has struggled to raise him alone and has done so without a great deal of success. He flinches from her touch.
Hawkins gives a performance of remarkable grace and sensitivity. Julie dotes on her child despite being rebuffed at practically every turn. In a way, she is as profoundly concerned with patterns as Nathan is, but what she is seeking is a way of understanding how his mind works so that he may grow to love her. Hawkins has always been good at playing distraught women who were slightly, comically askew (as in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky.”) Here she brings a greater depth. Hawkins' scenes with Butterfield are uplifting, sorrowful, and poignant, all at once.
Nathan finds a sort of surrogate father in Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a former Olympiad star who makes a meager living as a math coach because of his battles with multiple sclerosis. Martin comes on surly but he warms to Nathan, and to Julie as well. On both counts, the feeling is somewhat reciprocated without the film going all gooey on us.
Somewhat less restraint is demonstrated by Matthews, and his screenwriter, James Graham, when Nathan takes up in Taiwan with a fellow Olympian, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), whose puppyish affection for him he finds both intriguing and bewildering. I was glad that one of my favorite actors, Eddie Marsan, playing the hyperactive Olympiad coach, was on hand to stanch the treacle from the confab.
Asa Butterfield has a wide-eyed, slightly vacant quality that works well here, as it also did in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Hugo.” Nathan’s autism is not something the filmmakers sentimentalize. His disturbances are real, but so is his passion for math. It is that passion, shared by his coaches and, in her own way, his mother, that paradoxically ends up offering him a way into a world where mathematics is only one mansion among many. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)