“A Brilliant Young Mind” is a British “Little Man Tate,” a film about a young math genius in the making, the mother who has to seek the advice of others what to do with him and that one teacher who “gets” him and could help him achieve the greatness he seems destined for.
Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield of “Hugo” and “Ender’s Game”) is a boy “on the spectrum,” which we’ve all learned means he’s Autistic, perhaps leaning towards Asperger’s.
Everybody thinks he’s painfully shy, that he can’t talk.
But “I have lots of things to say,” he narrates. “I’m just afraid to say them.”
He “likes patterns,” he admits, but that’s an understatement. He’s obsessed with routine, where he sits, what he’ll eat and when.
His working class dad tells him he’s “got these special powers.” But Nathan is in the car when his dad is killed, and we know that losing that second parent is going to be telling.
Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) is his mother, struggling to please him, keep him calm. He repays this by insulting her every “mistake.”
But his genius is obvious in his school. The headmaster and his mother conspire to give Nathan a special tutor. Perhaps he can make the team for the International Mathematics Olympiad.
The question is, is Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall) up to that task? He drinks. He swears in front of students. He has multiple sclerosis, and is depressed. He seems like a teacher the school could do without while he’s working with Nathan.
One of the charms of “A Brilliant Young Mind” is how the filmmakers treat us to a world full of unpleasantly unfiltered and “direct” people, young and old. Mr. Humphreys has a past, which we only learn about from the tactless UK math Olympics team coach (Eddie Marsan).
“Wasted opportunity, this one,” he cracks, with Humphreys standing right next to Nathan’s mom, whom Humphreys has a crush on. On making the team, Nathan is surrounded by prodigies just like him. It’s no shock that one is a dead-ringer for Dr. Sheldon Cooper on TV’s “Big Bang Theory.” They’re all Cooper clones.
“A Brilliant Young Mind” takes us to team training in Taiwan, where Nathan is crushed on by several girls, and perhaps a little crushed that he’s not the brightest young mind in the room. Truth be told, the film meanders a bit and takes a long time getting to a fairly obvious destination.
But Butterfield is quite good, the other kids well-matched and Spall, Hawkins and Marsan terrific in support. That adds up to a picture well-worth your time, a sympathetic portrait of a young mind limited in its social and societal options, trying to make the most of the “special powers” he has that almost make up for the simple social graces he lacks.
Running time: 1:52