Tuesday, September 8, 2015

In Morgan Matthews' A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND, a smartypants adapts to life and love

Asperger is fast becoming the syndrome of choice for movie-makers who want to explore smarter-than-thou characters who also suffer from not fitting in. All the better, of course, if a happy ending can be arranged in which their skill allows them to triumph over their oppressors. A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND (formerly known as X+Y), written by James Graham and directed by Morgan Matthews, based in part on the latter's earlier documentary feature, Beautiful Young Minds, somewhat subverts this scenario to good effect.

If, as many viewers noted about last year's award-winner The Theory of Everything, there was damned little science shown in this movie about one of the world's great scientists, that is not true of this new film about an Asperger-plagued mathematics whiz, nicely limbed by Asa Butterfield (below, of Hugo and Ender's Game). We get a good dose of higher math here, and the experience is bracing -- even if we don't fully understand that math. Mr. Matthews, shown at left, has wisely combined a smart mixture of math, handicap, coming-of-age, and competition.

If the end result seems attained a tad too easily, there is also a sacrifice involved -- which goes some distance in making the movie more palatable for thinking adults. And if the filmmakers' "take" on Asperger is nowhere near as strong and real, say, as in the better movie, Adam -- which makes the syndrome something not able to be conquered by love and/or wishful thinking -- at least viewers can take respite in the raft of excellent performances that this newer movie offers up.

As the math whiz's mom, veteran Sally Hawkins (above, right) gives another dazzlingly energetic -- funny, moving, real -- performance, aside the two men who mean most in her life: her late husband (a lovely job by Martin McCann) and the tutor with emotional and physical problems of his own who has taken her son under wing (Rafe Spall, above, left).

Add to the mix another crack job by the versatile Eddie Marsan (above) as the group tutor who travels with the kids to Taiwan for the qualifying round of the Math Olympiad, and you have a terrific little ensemble. Hawkings, Marsan and Spall are masters at combining quirky reality with the kind of improvisational style that ends up seeming like life "heightened" -- funny, moving, surprising.

A little love interest is provided by Jo Yang (above, left) as the Chinese girl our hero hooks up with in Taiwan. But the movie's most memorable performance, oddly enough, comes from a supporting actor, Jake Davies, below, who plays the angriest, darkest of the young contenders. Davies, together with the role Graham has written for him, brings all the complexity and difficulties of Aspergers to the fore, confronting us with the kind of reality that feel-good films can't handle. A Brilliant Young Mind is good, all right. But I'll bet you'll wish it were better.

The movie, from Samuel Goldwyn Films and running 111 minutes, opens this Friday, September 11, in New York City and Los Angeles, with a nationwide rollout to follow soon.

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