Asa Butterfield in A Brilliant Young Mind (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Asa Butterfield in A Brilliant Young Mind (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

For director Morgan Matthews’s first feature film, he drew upon a documentary he produced and directed about the selection and training of the British team for the 2006 International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO), titled Brilliant Young Minds (2007). Many of the young competitors had a form of autism, which that film linked to their mathematical ability.

In his fictional film debut, Matthews has chosen to focus on a single participant in the fiercely competitive IMO. As a very young child, Nathan Ellis already displays a keen intellect and an extremely literal interpretation of the world around him. Case in point, an adult attempting to engage him in play with a toy stegosaurus receives a condescending reproof from Nathan about the dinosaur’s strictly vegetarian diet. He is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and by nature withdrawn. His father is the only one with whom he engages emotionally. When his dad is killed in a car accident, Nathan becomes completely uncommunicative and absorbs himself entirely in the predictable and ordered world of numbers.

Recognizing that his mathematical abilities are well beyond her son’s years, Nathan’s beleaguered mother (Sally Hawkins) arranges to have him placed with a tutor. The mathematically gifted Martin Humphreys also competed in the IMO as a teen, but his skills have since been mostly wasted. The physical impacts of multiple sclerosis have led him into depression and drug addiction.

Nathan’s desire to get into the competition gives Humphreys a sense of purpose and the two strike up a friendship. With Humphrey’s help, Nathan wins a chance to compete for a place on Great Britain’s team. He travels to Taipei for training camp and pairs up with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), who is hoping for a place on the Chinese team. Zhang Mei’s patient understanding helps Nathan, feeling lost and out of his league, to settle into his new surroundings, but she also acts as a distraction from his preparation to make the final cut. Nathan’s growing feelings for Zhang Mei stirs up long buried emotions connected to the memories he has of his father. In his efforts to make sense of the emotions that are surfacing within him, he loses his focus on the goal he has coveted for years.

Asa Butterfield excels in his role as the teenage autistic prodigy. Revealing most of his fear and confusion through his eyes, his rare and subtle shifts in facial expression and stiff, protective body language are spot-on. Rafe Spall adds a welcome element of self-deprecating humor to his role as the unorthodox tutor.

While Nathan’s autism sets him apart, it is what he has in common with the people in his life that become the focus of the story; the feelings of loss, loneliness, lack of confidence, and the need to feel love again. In a line of dialogue totally out of context for its prophetic nature, one of Nathan’s team members tells him, “Sometimes we have to change our shape to fit in.” Nathan, his mother, and his tutor are each making adjustments, at turns self-driven and by happenstance, which ultimately lead to an unexpected and emotionally satisfying ending to a beautifully filmed, heart-wrenching movie.

Directed by Morgan Matthews
Written by James Graham, based on a story by Mr. Matthews and Graham
Produced by Laura Hastings-Smith and David M. Thompson
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films
UK. 111 min. Not rated
With Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Edward Baker-Close, Isaac Cooper, and Martin McCann