From its prosaic title on down, “A Brilliant Young Mind” appears to be a pretty conventional kettle of fish: a British-made drama about an adolescent math genius (Asa Butterfield of “Hugo”) who overcomes crippling social awkwardness when he enters the International Mathematics Olympiad, a real-world annual competition. By his side are a caring single mother (Sally Hawkins, “Happy Go Lucky”), a flawed but stalwart teacher (Rafe Spall, “Prometheus”), and a student from the Chinese team (Jo Yang) who may turn out to be a girlfriend.
Tears, endurance, and triumph, right? Well, yes, but not at all the way you expect and with tender attentions paid to the emotional state of the film’s young hero, Nathan Ellis. He’s “somewhere on the spectrum” and is played by the lambent-eyed Butterfield as an exile from the world of other people, doomed (he fears) by the same wiring that makes him pluck equations from an invisible slipstream around him.
“A Brilliant Young Mind” — the film was originally titled “X+Y,” which doesn’t do it justice either — is equally interested in the mother, Julie, who struggles to reach out to a son she loves beyond words or numbers, and in the teacher, Martin, a gifted mathematician bitterly wasting away from MS. In the scenes in which Nathan travels to Taipei for an international math boot-camp, we see the drama of gifted but paralyzingly lonely young girls and boys play out in various ways, from a socially adroit fellow genius (Alex Lawther) who comes to seem rather smug to an irritating brainiac (Jake Davies) who comes to seem terribly sad. How the filmmakers manage to impart tragic overtones to Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch is a mystery, but they do.
The movie is strongest when it sees the world as Nathan does, as a series of patterns that can be beautiful — in shot after shot, cinematographer Danny Cohen pulls order from chaos — but equally baffling, even frightening. “A Brilliant Young Mind” leans a bit heavily on flashbacks involving young Nathan (Edward Baker-Close) and his father (Martin McCann), and the traumatic demise of the latter early on is almost more than this slender but empathetic movie can bear.
But director Morgan Matthews and screenwriter James Graham keep the focus on their young protagonist, and Butterfield delivers an aching, otherworldly performance as a boy gazing at other people from across a sea of conflicting data. Parents and teachers of all the Nathans out there may be inclined to give “A Brilliant Young Mind” the full four stars; for the rest of us, it’s small, smart, and satisfying.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.