Fortunately, this coming-of-age film comes to us from across the pond. Were it a Hollywood production, one can only assume a studio hack would have handled it. Rather, the British production, as helmed by television documentarian Morgan Matthews from a script by James Graham, hits most of its sweet and sad notes.
We open with a doctor diagnosing young Nathan Ellis (Edward Baker-Close plays him as a nine-year-old) with autism. After a tragedy claims his father (Martin McCann, the Academy Award-nominated short “Boogaloo and Graham”), the one person who seemed to reach and calm Nathan, his mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins, who is appealingly sympathetic even if she keeps replaying Happy-Go-Lucky’s Poppy), struggles to raise her math prodigy. Enter teacher Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall, Prometheus), who stuffs down his own personal problems to prepare teenage Nathan (Asa Butterfield, Hugo and Ender’s Game) for the International Mathematics Olympiad. Hawkins’ Happy-Go-Lucky costar Eddie Marsan has a welcome role as the British team’s coach.
The performances from Butterfield, Hawkins, Spall, Marsan and the film’s teen actors ensure that this film is a more appealing watch than other coming-of-age films. Were it not for the actors, A Brilliant Young Mind would be easier to dismiss as A Beautiful Teenage Mind. Butterfield and Jo Yang, who portrays Nathan’s Chinese counterpart, Zhang Mei, make such a lovely couple, struggling through the typical awkwardness of a burgeoning teenage relationship also challenged by the barriers of language, culture and medical disorder. The nuance of these young actors’ performances deepens what is ultimately a fairly predictable melodrama, especially where the adults are concerned.
But young love blossoming on the streets of Taiwan is just distinctive enough to elevate what could most certainly have been an after-school special, or at least a story arc on “Degrassi.” Despite its somewhat deflating ending considering what everyone, audience included, has been working toward for nearly two hours, A Brilliant Young Mind connects more deeply than one might expect from this rather prosaic story. A Brilliant Young Mind screens at Ciné through Thursday, Nov. 19.
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