Ah oui, Le Movie Snob is de retour with a British movie about …math!
Try to contain your excitement, it’s not so much about math, or maths as the Brits call it to double the pain, as it is about a mildly autistic teenager whose extraordinary mathematical talents help him cope with the loss of his father. Which happened when he was just a boy. In a car accident. Whilst he was sitting in the opposite front seat.
Math and tragedy?
I beg you again to contain your enthusiasm. Movies about socially awkward mathematical geniuses have become a genre that I’ve just this moment identified: Mathberger’s. Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind, and Shine (“music is math” is a line in this movie) all added Oscars to their legacies.
A Brilliant Young Mind might then be one of the first Oscar-baiting films released this season. Could the sum of the equation vous + movie be greater than its parts?
The answer is oui. And you don’t even have to understand any maths!
The success of the movie lies in first-time feature director Morgan Matthews’ previous directing experience being documentaries.
In fact, this movie is adapted from his own feature-length documentary for British television, the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts)- nominated Beautiful Young Minds.
I can imagine that some people may choose to believe that Matthews has taken a short cut by adapting his previous work.
Having made the BBC documentary not only provided Matthews with confidence, it buttressed his pitch to producers. His knowledge and experience with the subject matter actually elevate this movie to the top of the class.
Wisely, it’s not a faithful recreation of the documentary’s story which covered the bumpy journey of a group of students preparing for the International Mathematics Olympiad, the IMO.
For the feature, Matthews decided to tell the story of one specific student who ” …[had] a neurodevelopmental disorder that foster[ed] mathematical genius.” (production notes)
That student was Daniel Lightwing who was included in the entire process, even granted script approval. Daniel was re-imagined as Nathan Ellis, played magnificently by Asa Butterfield. (Edward Baker-Close as young Nathan is a real coup de casting.)
Nathan’s diagnosis is that he is on the autism spectrum, with a specific type of aphasia. Aphasia is not a disease or illness, but a neurological disorder that can manifest in difficulty in expressing oneself when speaking.
“I have lots of things to say,” Nathan says in voice-over as the movie opens. “I’m just afraid to say them.”
The doctor who makes the diagnosis in the movie describes Nathan’s aphasia as one that makes him sensitive to changes in colors and patterns; he predicts a life of social and emotional challenges.
Not having seen the documentary, I don’t know if this diagnosis matches Daniel’s, but it allows room for the fictional Nathan’s disability to not be so debilitating that it would preclude a beautiful story to be told.
The fact that Matthews recounted that “during different screenings, he [Daniel]…was able to stand up in front of an audience ..and answer questions…. He could never do that before,” suggests to me that Daniel may be more disabled than Nathan.
The other characters in the movie are based on the documentary’s subjects. They were reassured by Matthews that the characters in the movie are ” …inspired by you, but [they’re] not you. I can understand that is quite difficult to understand.”
Matthews’ familiarity with the characters is not as compelling as his documentary-style cinematography.
As the movie travels from Sheffield to Taipei to Cambridge, so does the audience. Matthews remarked that in Taipei they ” …were running around night markets and parks, on the streets, without any kinds of restrictions. The people in shot (sic) are not extras; they are just the people walking past.” (production notes)
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) plays Nathan’s widowed mother. Her character desperately wants to bring her son the joy and safety his father did, but his condition won’t allow it. Her performance is the best in the movie.
Rafe Spall, son of the great actor Timothy Spall, plays that special teacher we all need, Mr. Humphreys. While his moments of improvisation are obvious, they don’t take away from the gravity of the story; his character has challenges as formidable as does Nathan.
The ubiquitous Eddie Marsan is the team’s coach.
Taipei is the setting for the IMO training camp. The aforementioned shooting style is so impressive that the audience becomes as disoriented by the contrast in cultures as Nathan. The training camp hosts teams from countries from all over the world that will compete at the IMO at Trinity College at Cambridge University.
I found it curious that Taiwan would host China’s team, but a Chinese student of mine assured me that the tensions between the two countries are not so great as to interfere with a student competition.
This détente has personal value for Nathan. During the training sessions he meets a female member of the Chinese team, Zhang Mei (played by Chinese national Jo Yang -another excellent casting choice) who becomes ” …the catalyst to his emotional maturation.” (production notes)
I could reveal more, but you can do the math.
A Brilliant Young Mind may not be part of the equation come Oscar time, but it adds up to more than the more pedestrian offerings at the cinéma.