DVD Review: A Brilliant Young Mind

Published on February 5th, 2016 in: Current Faves, DVD, DVD/Blu-Ray Reviews, Movie Reviews, Movies, Reviews |

By Sachin Hingoo


A Brilliant Young Mind, sadly changed from its far-superior UK title, X + Y, is a film that shows how much a fairly overdone concept can be elevated with outstanding performances, very thoughtful casting, and an intriguing directorial vision. It’s not the most innovative piece in the world, but for the kind of sentimental comfort food it’s aiming to be, it’s satisfying and even moving. Should you watch this movie? I think you should.

The movie’s centered on Nathan, at first portrayed in childhood by Edward Baker-Close and then as an adolescent by Asa Butterfield, a mathematics prodigy struggling with the shocking death of his father. In addition, he is diagnosed with aphasia and registers on the autism spectrum, making him especially socially awkward and deeply afraid of human contact. His difficulties with vocalizing are discussed early on, where he says that just because he doesn’t say much, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a lot to say.

We follow Nathan as he is paired with an eccentric, damaged tutor (Rafe Spall) who was once a prodigy himself. It’s suitably developed, but as much as you think the film is going to focus on this relationship, it pivots and sends Nathan to Taiwan where he trains for the International Mathematics Olympiad with several other students. In this country where everything seems alien to him, Nathan realizes he’s able to communicate in other ways, and is both proficient and articulate in Chinese, even forging the beginnings of a romantic relationship with fellow prodigy, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). The film comes back to the UK for the Olympiad itself, and pivots again to show Nathan’s slowly-increasing confidence with both himself and with Zhang Mei. This is no standard fairy tale, though; there are a few unexpected turns along the way which take A Brilliant Young Mind out of cliché territory.


Butterfield, who has brought incredible instincts to lead roles in The Boy With The Striped Pajamas and Hugo, does a great job with the character of Nathan. Because his social difficulties don’t always come through in his sparse dialogue, a lot of his portrayal depends on physical tics to show how he recoils at human contact and his extreme shyness as he struggles to get a sentence out. Much of A Brilliant Young Mind is concerned with putting the viewer right in Nathan’s, well, mind, and Butterfield and director Morgan Matthews work perfectly in concert to show Nathan’s mental state even when he’s not saying anything.

It’s not only the three principal characters that are given careful attention and a well-developed portrayal in A Brilliant Young Mind. One of my favorite things about the movie is the way that all of the peripheral characters in Nathan’s life–his teammates, his tutor Martin, his coach, and especially his mother–feel fleshed-out and realistic, each with their own stories and issues even when the characters don’t get much screen time. Eddie Marsden’s turn as Nathan’s coach is hilarious, and he is usually the best part of every scene he’s in as he vacillates between being the tough coach and jocular mentor. The most vibrant of these performances, though, comes from Sally Hawkins as Nathan’s widowed mother, as she tries to understand and relate to her son while charmingly starting to fall for Martin. Admirably and effectively, Hawkins never seems to make the easy acting choices here, instead choosing to layer the detached nature–physically, emotionally, and intellectually–of her relationship with Nathan underneath a veneer of warmth, thus driving home the challenges of raising an autistic kid.


A Brilliant Young Mind follows a current trend of movies; it’s based on a true story that Matthews used for his 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds. Though the philosophy seems to be that true stories are more interesting to people, personally I only care about “true stories” in horror, like with Hellraiser*. It’s an extremely well-executed story though, and with a rare, sharp eye, Matthews puts you right into Nathan’s troubled mind as he relives his father’s death, as he strains to comprehend the world around him, and as he attempts to forge and foster the relationships in his life, something that is anything but second nature.

I’ll admit that the premise of A Brilliant Young Mind is as conventional as heck, adding to the gigantic pile of overly sentimental teacher/student dramas, and your first instinct is likely to dismiss it as schlock, but I think you’d be doing yourself a great disservice if you did.  It’s one of the more pleasant surprises I’ve found in this genre, and is definitely great as both a whole, and a sum of its parts.

A Brilliant Young Mind was released on DVD, iTunes, Google Play and VOD on February 2 through D Films.

*Research done after this article was completed revealed that Hellraiser is not, in fact, based on a true story. I guess my fear of puzzles was incredibly misplaced.

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