Starting with the title and continuing to the list of funders onscreen (the BBC, the U.K.’s National Lottery), you begin watching A Brilliant Young Mind assuming the worst: It will be tidy, polite, very British and uplifting in a prepackaged way. You are correct, sort of. To its credit, though, Mind survives a pat, over-familiar first act to become sweetly engaging by the end.
It’s the tale of a British boy named Nathan (played by Edward Baker-Close as a kid, then as a teen by Asa Butterfield from Hugo), brilliant at math but perched somewhere toward the Asperger’s end of the autism spectrum. He’s being raised by a loving mum, Julie (the always welcome Sally Hawkins), and by a dad (Martin McCann) who’s so darn nurturing, you can sense the clichéd car crash that will kill him long before he drives up to that fatal intersection. (Seriously, there needs to be a moratorium on this no-longer-shocking plot device.)
Shaken by grief, not quite sure how to cope (Nathan won’t even hold her hand at the funeral), Julie takes her son to a progressive school hoping that someone there can connect with the kid. She lucks out with Martin (Rafe Spall, who played the writer in Life of Pi). He’s a character equipped with some other clichés we don’t really need: He’s got MS, has to walk with a cane, confiscates joints from students and smokes them himself. And, like Nathan, when young he was a math genius, though he squandered his promise with self-loathing and prescription drugs.
Nathan and Martin. It’s an odd-couple match we’ve seen in lots of movies. I wouldn’t blame you if you heave big, impatient sighs during the first half hour of Mind. I did. While enduring flashbacks to “Perfect Dad” shoving french fries up his nose to bond with young Nathan, you especially wonder: Can we ever warm to this kid; this chilly blank slate? To their credit, both young actors, Baker-Close and then Butterfield, refuse to court easy sympathy. Likewise, Spall (son of Timothy, and possibly the best thing in the movie) makes his character’s imperfections approachable in ways that don’t make you squeamish. You start to care for these guys despite, and because of, their shortcomings.
After the teenage Nathan makes the initial cut for the annual International Mathematical Olympiad for pre-college students, and flies with a couple dozen fellow eggheads from Blighty to Taiwan, things become increasingly interesting. The team of British kids is chaperoned by Richard (Eddie Marsan, Hawkins’s co-star from Happy-Go-Lucky, though the actors share only a couple of minutes together in this movie).
At this international camp for eggheads, the British kids are competing for only six finalist slots for the actual Olympiad. Stress fractures start to show. One boy, a fellow autism-spectrum fellow named Luke (Jake Davies), turns out to have an even harder time connecting with his fellow students than Nathan does. Nathan, meantime, paired with a Chinese student named Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), starts to understand those things called feelings that previously seemed to belong to a world unrelated to his own. The relationship triggers emotions that slowly push him toward confronting the grief he’s buried about his dad.
Okay, so maybe I’m an old sap. But all these elements — which admittedly sound like basic building blocks for a Blighty-style after school special — came together for me in satisfying, even moving ways. With less skilled actors, the seams would probably show more easily. Yes, the movie follows formula. But it’s a movie about math, so maybe that’s why the formula works.
A Brilliant Young Mind. With Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan. Directed by Morgan Matthews. Unrated. 111 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.