As autism sheds its stigma and diagnoses keep tumbling out of the closet, stories about people on the spectrum are starting to multiply as well, and for every brilliant work of imaginative empathy like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, there are bound to be at least a couple of clayfooted duds like A Brilliant Young Mind. If it weren’t for the considerable talent of its principal actors, there would be nothing noteworthy about this film. Unfortunately, even they can only occasionally breathe life into this pastiche of tired tropes.
Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) is good enough at math to be a finalist for the International Mathematics Olympiad, or, as the contestants call it, the IMO. But he has almost no social skills and no friends at all, unless you count the adults who cheer him on. His effortlessly reassuring and entertaining father (Martin McCann) died in front of his eyes when Martin was a boy (cue theme #1: Will Nathan ever be able to grieve for his father?), leaving him with a resolutely cheery mother (Sally Hawkins) who cannot find a way to connect with him. (Theme #2: Will Nathan ever hug his mother? Will he hold her hand?) Nathan’s other main ally is his surly math teacher, Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a foul-mouthed underachiever with a heart of gold who was, as Nathan is informed by the teachers’ headmaster, “a bit of a math whiz when he was younger.” (Theme #3: What went wrong with Mr. Humphreys, and can it be put right?)
A fictional character loosely based on a real math whiz featured in director Morgan Matthews’s 2007 documentary about the IMO, Beautiful Young Minds, Nathan is model-pretty in a way that the real boy is not. His backstory and journey also feel a bit processed, worked over to be audience-friendly. His journey to the IMO follows such a well-worn trajectory that it’s no spoiler to reveal that he starts as an underdog, but makes it onto the six-member English team. Math isn’t what you’d think of as a spectator sport, but the Broadway version of The Curious Incident managed to make it just that. This film doesn’t, skimming over the technical details of the training and competition to focus on Nathan’s emotions and backstage dramas, in ways that generally feel forced or inauthentic. In one typically overwritten scene, Nathan’s sense of inferiority is overcome when he’s forced up to the blackboard to do a proof in front of the others and aces it—and gets a thunderous round of applause. A lot of time is also spent on one romance that goes nowhere and another that never feels remotely plausible, as a blond girl in Nathan’s group quietly pines for him while he slowly and awkwardly warms up to Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a contender for the Chinese team with whom he has no chemistry whatsoever.
Aside from a few clumsy attempts to show how Nathan experiences the world by amping up distracting sounds or colors or using slow motion, Matthews leaves it up to his cast to convey the experience and effects of Asperger’s. Butterfield gives Nathan a convincingly Aspy reserve, which usually comes off as bamboozlement or fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, but sometimes reads as arrogance or coldhearted aloofness, especially when Nathan is seen dealing with his relentlessly supportive, perpetually rebuffed mother. Hawkins pushes her habitual cheery kindness almost to the breaking point, giving her character a brittle bravery that betrays the strain of mothering a child who either ignores her or treats her with casual contempt. When the two of them are interacting, A Brilliant Young Mind is temporarily successful at suggesting how it might feel to have Asperger’s, or to love an unhappy young man with Asperger’s who hasn’t yet learned how to handle it.