The curious practice of renaming British films for US markets continues with X + Y, now called A Brilliant Young Mind. We can only guess at the reasoning behind this decision. Perhaps it’s an effort to conflate it with That Russell Crowe Movie About Schizophrenia (And A Bit About Maths).
Such small manipulations don’t detract from Morgan Matthews’s winsome, sensitive movie, however. A Brilliant Young Mind is centred on Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield), a prodigy who learns that while seeming weird and ferociously clever may be preferred, weird’s just fine on its own.
For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the roster of neuro-atypical protagonists on TV and in films in the past decade or so, Nathan explains in voice-over that while he struggles to read people, numbers give elegant consolation. Helpfully, we also have a scene in which a very young Nathan (Edward Baker-Close) is diagnosed as being (say it with me, everyone) “on the spectrum”, a pat and often abused explanation for difficult behaviour in popular culture. The term also perpetuates the damaging notion that disability of any kind is only worth presenting on screen if it comes with some compensatory gift.
Nathan has the burden of navigating all of this in the absence of his much-loved father (Martin McCann), who dies early in the film. The car-crash set piece benefits from brevity: Nathan’s father is dispatched in a manner that would have little sense even for someone who can accept disorder. Presented as more unreal is his mother Julie’s (Sally Hawkins) reaction. Her face distorted until it’s all eyes and mouth.
Apart from this trauma, the film mostly glosses over Nathan’s early childhood, emphasising the narrowness of his experience through repetition and tight shots of his childhood bedroom. This until he’s rescued by teacher Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), who meets Nathan at school and begins work in earnest to develop the boy’s talent. The school’s headmaster (Jamie Ballard) almost vibrates with the anticipated glory by proxy, indicative of the A Brilliant Young Mind‘s cynical view of academe’s tendency to enforce conformity and to exploit young minds.
Such exploitation becomes visible when Nathan travels to Cambridge and China with a few other gifted students to compete in the International Mathematics Olympiad. The film shows a pattern of Nathan’s particular brand of weird being harnessed to power an infernal machine of academic progress hungry for “fresh meat”, with little regard for the his (or other students’) mental health. These displays of callousness might remind viewers of more dire representations, German Expressionist or slasher-flick styles, as Nathan’s anxiety takes the form of a Fibonacci spiral by way of an endless staircase and recurring close-ups of Butterfield, solemn and huge-eyed.
The boy’s experience is framed by Humphreys’ efforts. Spall plays him as if he might be the missing link between Gregory House and Frank Bryant of Educating Rita. His non-conformism is signified as much by his uncontrolled body than the liberal swearing and drugs, his failure to fulfill his own potential is at once neatly diagnosable and an implied character flaw. He’s accused of using his illness to excuse a lack of application and the idea isn’t entirely refuted.
Humphreys is scruffy, misanthropic and worse, the film suggests, a non-compliant medical patient. He’s unlikely to urge anyone to seize the day, even if the film’s general discomfort with big inspirational scenes and its plangent indie soundtrack make such a prospect unlikely. But, he does encourage Nathan to pursue maths for the love of it, and to propel his own narrative, rather than allowing others to do it for him.
All that said, A Brilliant Young Mind’s most affecting relationship is that between Nathan and Chinese competitor Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). With her, Nathan is not being managed, used, or protected, but instead, engages in friendship and challenges to his beliefs about himself (turning the relationship into a chaste romance seems a little unnecessary). Butterfield is convincing and sometimes unsympathetic in a role that could easily have devolved into a cruel Sheldon Cooper caricature; though we’re given a minor example of the type in fellow Olympiad competitor Luke (Jake Davies), we’re shamed for laughing along when it’s made plain that even those who can’t make jokes know when they’ve become one.
Similarly, the film avoids the absolutely conventional in Nathan’s mother. (In another universe, Julie might is surely played by a glowing Renée Zellweger or Jennifer Lawrence.) Hawkins conveys multiple fleeting doubts and conflicts without speaking them aloud, with a fearlessness that makes viewers warm to Julie even as we might wish she’d tolerate a little less.
Her awkwardness and complication, along with those of other characters, eventually fall prey to the requisite redemptive ending. Even as A Beautiful Young Mind’s protagonist learns to cope with uncertainty, its viewers aren’t credited with the maturity to do so.