Even with entertainment filled with autistic characters helping break stigmas about being on the spectrum, there’s still the danger of the stories being about the disorder rather than about the people with the disorder. Despite a cast of some of Britain’s finest actors, A Brilliant Young Mind can’t help but have a bland script, one-dimensional characters, and little development among of its conflict.
As a young child, it’s clear that Nathan thinks differently than everyone else in his life. His knowledge is advanced at a young age, knowing more about prime numbers and dinosaurs than most adults. His father (Martin McCann) believed that Nathan’s way of thinking made him special and did his best to reinforce this believe in his son. After a car accident in which Nathan watches his father dies, he’s left without a source of support, since his mother (Sally Hawkins) never quite knows how to get Nathan to love her in the same way he loved his father.
After years of hearing about the International Mathematics Olympiad and tutoring from his grumpy teacher Martin (Rafe Spall), who has multiple sclerosis, teenage Nathan (played by Asa Butterfield) finally gets the opportunity to compete in the IMO. He is taken to Taiwan to train for the IMO, where if he does well enough, he could represent the UK as one of the country’s greatest math geniuses.
This second act of A Brilliant Young Mind is the film allowing Nathan to discover the world on his own, without any sort of guidance, where he can make his own choices and mistakes. In the first act, where we see young Nathan dealing with his disorder is more about the failures in Nathan’s personality than it is in his brilliance. We see how his uncertainty in reacting to people’s emotions has broke down his mother over the years, and has kept him away from making any friends. We rarely ever see the benefits of Nathan’s disorder, rather than that he’s very good at math, which isn’t illustrated all that well and is even harder to show when every time he has to take a test, his mind takes him back to the car accident that took his father from him.
A Brilliant Young Mind’s biggest misstep is that it allows its characters to almost always be defined by their flaws and thereby makes them one-dimensional. Nathan’s mother is defined by her soul-crushing desire to have her son show any sense of love for her, and Martin is defined by the disease that has made him angry at the world. Even the two girls that have crushes on Nathan are defined simply by their one characteristics: one can play piano, another has an overbearing Chinese family.
Throughout Nathan’s training process, the film throws many different fears in his way for the sole purpose of making his one lifelong goal harder. The two girls that have shown an interest in him make him curious about love for the first time, the adults in his life stress him out more than he should be (not to mention his dead father that he keeps seeing), and his first friends create dynamics that start to confuse what types of people he should spend time with. The British IMO team even has a kid much more autistic than Nathan for seemingly the purpose of showing audiences that Nathan’s cold demeanor could be much, much worse.
By the end, very few of these relationships with Nathan have evolved in any way, except Nathan seems to have a slightly better understanding of what love is, which might be its strangest lesson. Far too often A Brilliant Young Mind posits that all anyone needs – whether its physical, mental or an emotional one – is just to find someone who loves them for who they are. There’s never really any determination to improve one’s self, only to make sure that someone else loves you. As one character in the IMO tells Nathan, “You have to learn to adapt to make the world think you’re normal.” But should the moral of this story really be to fix yourself for others rather than finding the best in someone?
Director Morgan Matthews’ prior film Beautiful Young Minds was a documentary about the real IMO and it’s hard to imagine the people he followed were as simple as the ones he creates for A Brilliant Young Mind. By making its characters so one-sided, they become almost inhuman and spoils A Brilliant Young Mind from the very beginning into a tedious failure of supposed genius.