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Family Movie Review: A Brilliant Young Mind (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 111 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. This drama about an autistic teenager training for an international math competition and trying to maneuver a relationship with his mother includes some cursing; some teenagers kissing and a mention of erectile dysfunction during a discussion about a potential romantic relationship between the protagonist’s mother and his math coach; a fatal car accident in which a parent dies; some marijuana use by someone who is chronically ill; and a subplot about self-harming, with scars shown that demonstrate this.

‘A Brilliant Young Mind,’ about a teenager with autism, brings to mind films like ‘Rain Man’ and ‘A Beautiful Mind.’ But this touching film features strong performances that make it more memorable than you would initially expect.

By Roxana Hadadi

How to depict autism onscreen? “A Brilliant Young Mind” makes an attempt with a drama about British teenagers, many of them on the spectrum, training for an international math competition. Thanks to strong performances and a heartwarming, if somewhat obvious, conclusion, “A Brilliant Young Mind” is a solid family-viewing choice.

The film focuses on 16-year-old math prodigy Nathan (Asa Butterfield, of “Ender’s Game”), whose personality is prickly, to say the least: He barely interacts with his mother, the constantly apologizing, desperate-for-affection Julie (Sally Hawkins, of “Paddington”), and he doesn’t seem to have any friends. Julie yearns for an “I love you,” a hug, or even holding hands, but Nathan ignores her at every turn. He had a closer relationship with his father, but after a car accident left Julie and Nathan alone, their mother-son bond is practically nonexistent. “You’re not clever enough,” Nathan says, and you can tell the dismissal cuts Julie deeply.

But she knows what her son is passionate about, and that’s “maths”—Nathan sees patterns in everything, and it’s his burgeoning genius that inspires Julie to find him a math coach. Into their lives enters Martin (Rafe Spall, of “What If”), a whirlwind of a man: He spews profanity, he uses marijuana, and he doesn’t let Nathan off easy. A former math prodigy himself who is now suffering from multiple sclerosis, Martin understands Nathan’s ability, agreeing to train him for the International Mathematics Olympiad.

A prestigious competition that pits teenagers from around the world against each other in national teams, the IMO takes intense focus and superior skill—both of which Nathan have. And as Nathan and Martin develop a relationship, Martin and Julie do, too. So when Nathan eventually leaves for Taipei to train with the British national team and compete in the IMO, the film expands his world with potential new friends and a teenage crush, but allows focus to remain on Martin and Julie, too, creating complementary narratives that examine both childhood and parenthood at once.

For the most part, “A Brilliant Young Mind” effectively balances a story we haven’t really seen before in film—“autistic teenager falls in love while doing high-level math” isn’t something that pops up often in theaters—with a somewhat typical difficult-child-and-frazzled-parent subplot. The script gets somewhat sappy toward the end as Nathan begins to realize what Julie means to him, but for the most part it treats Nathan respectfully and honestly, from his difficulty expressing himself to his cautious interest in other people. When one of Nathan’s peers asks him about his autism, “How did your mom and dad explain it to you?”, the insight into the teenagers’ world is undeniably affecting.

It helps that Butterfield and Hawkins are particularly great, with the latter especially delivering the same kind of affectionate-yet-harried mother character we saw her shine with in “Paddington.” Overall, “A Brilliant Young Mind” has flaws toward the end, especially when it tries to wrap up its challenging characters’ journeys into Lifetime-like crowd pleasing, but prior to that, the film works as a deeply felt drama that will touch parents and teens alike.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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