by Lee Purvey
Psychological expressionism is the norm in 2015. Besides the slew of psychological thrillers, firmly entrenched by now in their suffocating generic alphabet, so many contemporary non-genre offerings have come to employ the increasingly diverse cinematographic tools now available to match their formal appearance with the internal state of their characters. In just the last year, we've endured Alice Howland’s capitulation to early-onset Alzheimer’s (Still Alice) expressionistically rendered in a confusion of saturated blurs, then watched Jean-Marc Vallée give voice (literally) to Cheryl Strayed’s grief and anxiety in Wild, snatches of nagging phrases seeping up from the depths of the sound mix to pull viewer and character alike into an unsuccessfully repressed emotional past. This is just to name a few. If it was conceived in the literary realm in the early twentieth century by writers like William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, the subjective narrative has unmistakably arrived in mainstream cinema during the first years of the twenty-first.
Director: Morgan Matthews
Producer: Laura Hastings-Smith
Writers: James Graham
Cinematographer: Danny Cohen
Editor: Peter Lambert
Music: Martin Phipps
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Orion Lee
Premiere: September 5, 2014 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 11, 2015
US Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
In A Brilliant Young Mind, autism gets the psycho-expressionist treatment at the hands of first-time narrative feature director Morgan Matthews and writer James Graham.
“I find any communication, of a non-mathematical nature, very difficult,” begins Nathan Ellis over the film's opening shots, a hunched, slender adolescent with big, startled blue eyes peering out from under the rim of an umbrella.
Diagnosed with autism as well as synesthesia related to color and pattern, Nathan (Asa Butterfield) passes through life quite alone, alienated from his peers, while privately struggling to work through the death of his father some years prior in a traffic accident that Nathan himself survived.
The expressionistic world Matthews crafts to contain Nathan's story is one of stark contrasts. A preternatural talent in mathematics, Nathan's bid for a chance to compete for Britain in the International Mathematical Olympiad, the world's premier math tournament for juveniles, constitutes the film's major dramatic trajectory. Math provides Nathan a refuge from the uncertainties of a social world he fails to navigate. When he sits for his first IMO exam, alongside his math tutor Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), it is in a cavernous lecture hall filled with dozens of desks, perfectly aligned according to the room’s dimensions. The years spent anticipating this achievement, quietly studying in his room, are transformed into a crisp mechanical montage, the illustrations in his math books mirroring the right triangles of the sandwiches his mother serves him for lunch each day.
But when Nathan finally reaches his goal, this world starts to disintegrate. Between rocky classroom sessions at the IMO training camp in Taipei, Nathan passes the time wandering the streets of the cramped and frenetic metropolis. The chaos and explosive color Nathan encounters here at first make him flinch, but finally mark his entry into a much wider emotional world, mostly via his friendship with a Chinese Olympiad named Zhang (Jo Yang).
Probably aided by his character's diagnosable qualities, Butterfield (already, at 18, a lead in several moderately acclaimed features, including the titular role in Scorsese's Hugo) simply pours himself into perfecting Nathan's flinching tics, closed posture, and avoidant gaze. Nathan’s alienation and confusion is palpable, but more compelling is the way in which Butterfield inserts relatable human yearnings -- to connect and empathize -- into a character who struggles to identify socially and express his emotions. Butterfield's performance (along with that of Sally Hawkins, who brings life to a flat character as Julie, Nathan's long suffering mother) serves as the emotional core of the film, which finds itself hijacked too frequently by Graham's Icarian screenplay.
Wisely eschewing the usual narrative arc so many films treating intellectual competition have borrowed from the world of sports drama -- don’t expect Akeelah and the Bee -- A Brilliant Young Mind takes its entire runtime to show its true colors. This isn't a win-lose narrative, but rather an ambitious story of disability that sincerely tries to give each effected party his or her due.
Halfway through Nathan's experience in Taipei, the story jumps tracks to explore the budding friendship and romance between the lonely, baffled Julie and Martin, whose own regrets about missed opportunities in professional math cripple him as much as the increasingly debilitating multiple sclerosis that hobbles his stride. At the same time, the film tries to take shots at careerism and familial pressure in the form of Nathan's despicable Olympiad coach (Eddie Marsan) and Zhang's controlling uncle and coach (Orion Lee); attempts to address disability and bullying via Nathan's ostracized teammate Luke (Jack Davies); explores themes of intercultural exchange through team Britain's encounters with Taiwanese life . . . the list goes on.
Discontent with a straight story of Nathan's autism, Graham tries to shoot the moon. Trailing along behind this careening narrative vehicle, Matthews is forced to deploy a grab bag of clichéd, made-for-TV crutches. They're all here: the dreary semi-ambient score, the break-your-nose timing of the incessant flashbacks, the overwrought trigger symbolism, the generous narrative use of spontaneous applause.
The result is a heartfelt but uneven effort. To their credit, Matthews and Graham pull off a respectable conclusion to their messy tale. In a blatant rejection of the nerd-sport pathos one might expect coming into the film, A Brilliant Young Mind instead ends with the one thing Nathan fears the most: a frank conversation. Considering how effective this conclusion still is (in no small part due to Butterfield's admirable work), one can't help but wonder what Matthews could have done with a more focused rewrite.