It’s another film about a brilliant and troubled math genius looking for love — and it finds the same irrational number
A Brilliant Young Mind
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall
Directed by: James Graham
Running time: 111 minutes
By Jay Stone
Here’s an equation for you math movie fans to factor: x squared plus y equals the square root of 2, where x is a troubled genius (is there any other kind?), y is the sweet and understanding woman who also knows a thing or two about arithmetic, and the root of 2 is our old friend — so beloved of troubled geniuses and screenwriters alike — the irrational number.
Which is to say, A Brilliant Young Mind is a love story set in the world of mathematics, replete with unsolvable formulae and easy answers. It does for Asperger’s syndrome what A Beautiful Mind did for schizophrenia: lots of drama but not much science.
It tells the story of Nathan, a socially awkward young math genius whom we first meet as a small boy — played by the engaging Edward Baker-Close — hiding from his child psychologist. “What do you like?,” the doctor asks and Nathan replies, “I like patterns.” Nathan falls somewhere on the autism spectrum: he’s shy, silent, watchful, brilliant, and obsessed. His mother (the incomparable Sally Hawkins) must cut his toast into four equilateral triangles and his Chinese food orders must contain a prime number of prawn balls: seven, not eight or nine.
He grows up to be Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), who brings a gawky subtlety to the role, a feat of physical shrinkage and watchfulness that doesn’t waver. However, when Nathan goes to a special school, we feel the first cold fingers of manipulation. His teacher, Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall) is himself awkward — his physical problems become an easy and obvious correlative to Nathan’s loneliness — and what’s more, there turns out to be a mathematics Olympics to which Nathan can aspire, if he can only overcome his introversion.
Movies that end with mathematics Olympiads — or musical competitions, or writing contests — have a special place in that mixed blessing known as “crowd-pleasers,” but at least A Brilliant Young Mind comes by it honestly. The director, James Graham, previously made a documentary about the subject for British television, and you sense a reality lurking under that familiar story.
Nathan and the other gifted outsiders who make up the British team go to Taipei for training, then return to Cambridge for the contest itself. The math camp gives us a chance to meet some memorable nerds: kids who can recite pi to a few hundred places as a party trick, or recognize a Fibonacci sequence when they hear one, or who are tormented by both their gift and the pain it necessarily brings. It also gives Nathan a chance to meet Zhang Mei (Jo Lang), a member of the hard-driving Chinese math team — mathematics being something of an art form in China — and certainly the cutest math whiz since Keira Knightley turned up in The Imitation Game.
“This is all about winning,” says the rather tally-ho leader of the math camp (Eddie Marsan), but we veterans of such forays into number theory know very well that there is no formula for love. Actually A Brilliant Young Mind presents such a thing, a jumble of confounding math symbols and letters that is one of several false starts — including hints of a more mature romance — that help fill out the story.
By the end, we’re rooting for Nathan to be something that he probably cannot, even if you believe there is more magic in human relations than in all the Chinese mathematics in the world. Things don’t end the way we expect; rather, they end in a way they likely couldn’t. That’s another way movies are different from math problems. You don’t have to prove anything.
A Fibonacci sequence of best movie mathematicians:
0: Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind
1: Matt Damon as Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting
1: Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game
2: Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything
3: Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park
5: Walter Matthau as Albert Einstein in I.Q.
8: Kevin Spacey as Micky Rosa in 21
13: Sean Gullette as Maximilian Cohen in Pi