‘A Brilliant Young Mind’: Tender portrait of a mom and her challenging son

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Imagine being the single mother of a teenage son who is so off-the-charts brilliant he’s a candidate for the International Math Olympiad — but so incapable of expressing or accepting love he never hugs you, never says he loves you and can’t fathom why you would cry when he’s leaving on a trip to China.

In “A Brilliant Young Mind,” that mother is played by Sally Hawkins, and it is one of the purest, most tender and most beautiful performances of the year, and Hawkins deserves supporting actress consideration for her sublime and lovely work. It’s the best thing in a conventional but well-crafted story of a boy who has an amazing gift but has also been saddled with conditions that will likely prevent him from ever having a normal social life.

In flashback scenes, 9-year-old Nathan (Edward Baker-Close) is already smarter than most of his teachers, but he recoils when anyone tries to touch him, his mind wanders to the point where he could be a danger to himself and he’s an outcast among his peers.

When Nathan’s father Michael (Martin McCann) and mother Julie (Hawkins) take Nathan for tests, they’re told he has aphasia — a condition that almost completely hinders one’s ability to communicate in a normal fashion — and a form of autism. Nathan’s kindly father chooses to concentrate on the positive, telling him to always remember he has “superpowers,” i.e., amazing mathematical skills.

Cut to nine years later. Now it’s just Julie and Nathan (now played by Asa Butterfield in a terrific, well-rounded performance), who is 16, still adamantly opposed to letting his mother or anyone else even touch his hand — and on the fast track for the International Math Olympiad. As one kid tells Nathan when he joins a group of fellow budding geniuses at a boot camp of sorts, he’s no longer the smartest person around and he might not even be the weirdest.

Everything beyond the textbook and the chalkboard is a challenge for Nathan. He’s obsessed with prime numbers to the point where even the number of items in any given food order must adhere to certain mathematical standards. Flashing light signals and loud street noises and bright colors practically jump out at him when he walks the street at night. When he’s introduced to someone, the mere prospect of shaking hands will catapult him out of the room.

Director Morgan Matthews (who did a 2007 documentary on real-life British teenagers competing for the International Mathematical Olympiad and based the character of Nathan on one of the participants) does a fine job of showing us the world through Nathan’s prisms. An extended sequence set in Taipei, where Nathan and his mates train with their Chinese counterparts, is particularly vibrant.

Jo Yang is a real charmer as Zhang Mei, Nathan’s math partner who refuses to allow Nathan not to feel anything for her. Rafe Spall is a comedic force as Nathan’s longtime teacher Martin, a one-time prodigy himself.

The last act of “A Brilliant Young Mind” is undeniably moving but not entirely believable and a little too neat and clean. Still, long after you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember the wonderfully nuanced work of the cast, in particularly Ms. Hawkins, who is bursting with love for her son every second of the day, but has to tell herself to keep a lid on it, lest she drive him away.

[s3r star=3/4]

Samuel Goldwyn Films presents a film directed by Morgan Matthews and written by James Graham. Running time: 111 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at Landmark’s Century Centre.

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