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A Good Cast Keeps The Familiar Fresh In 'A Brilliant Young Mind'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 23, 2015 10:24PM

Asa Butterfield in 'A Brilliant Young Mind' (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films).

When it comes to showing the life of the mind, I'm not sure anyone will do it with more panache than John Goodman in Barton Fink. But other movies keep trying with varying degrees of success. The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and the new release Pawn Sacrifice are among the recent movies to explore genius via drama.

Now, add to that list the new British feature, A Brilliant Young Mind (released overseas as X+Y), a fictional story inspired by director Morgan Matthews' 2007 documentary, Beautiful Young Minds, about teenage math prodigies with autism. Befitting a movie about math, this one has its pluses and minuses.

Asa Butterfield, who has sprouted quite a bit since playing the title character in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, is the character with the title attribute. He plays Nathan, an autistic teen who, as a child, survived a deadly accident that killed his father. His widowed mother (Sally Hawkins) does her best to make sure his intellectual gifts are nurtured, but Nathan's social handicaps often translate into a heartbreaking lack of empathy for his devoted mom.

Nathan benefits from the tutelage of Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), himself a former math prodigy. Now a jaded teacher struggling with multiple sclerosis, Humphreys is reinvigorated by seeing Nathan's talents blossom, and by a growing affection for his mother. The boy's involvement in the International Mathematical Olympiad takes him away from home for the first time as the team trains in Taiwan, where he not only faces the stress of competition, but the turmoil of newfound interest in the opposite sex.

A Brilliant Young Mind hits a lot of the expected plot points and emotional triggers, but a fair amount of them work thanks to an excellent cast. Butterfield captures the simultaneous mental focus and emotional confusion of his character well, and Hawkins—a veteran of several Mike Leigh films—is absolutely winning as the devoted but unappreciated mother.

Rafe Spall and Asa Butterfield in 'A Brilliant Young Mind'

The breakout star of the cast, however, is Spall. The son of Timothy Spall (another Mike Leigh regular), Rafe has been appearing in film and television for some 15 years, but as the charming yet troubled and self-defeating teacher, he walks away with every scene he appears in.

There are nice layers to most of the characters, even the somewhat thinly drawn British Olympiad coach, thanks to some subtle touches by the reliably good Eddie Marsan. Playing a more aggressively arrogant side of autism, young Jake Davies also impresses as one of Nathan's teammates. Unfortunately, not as much consideration was give to two prominent Chinese characters who skirt a little too close to cultural stereotypes.

The main problem with A Brilliant Young Mind is that Matthews is too obvious in forcing a gentle, slightly sad tone on the viewer. Between Martin Phipps' almost non-stop score and some whiny folk tunes by Keaton Henson, the movie trumpets its own delicate nature to diminishing effect. Also, multiple uses of flashback-heavy montages keep reminding the audience of the tragedy in Nathan's past, but they are completely unnecessary. The actors get the point across without all these flashing-light signifiers.

Mushy mistakes aside, the movie does seem sincere and is rather moving in several scenes. If this had a larger budget and more famous stars, it would undoubtedly be getting an overexposed Oscar push. With it flying under the radar a bit, its modest appeal is easier to appreciate.

A Brilliant Young Mind. Directed by Morgan Matthews. Written by James Graham. Starring Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan. 111 mins. No MPAA rating.

Opens Friday, September 25 at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema in Chicago.