One of the big stories lately has been the case of Ahmed Mohamed, a fourteen-year-old Texas schoolboy with a passion for technology. When he showed off to his teacher an alarm clock he’d made himself, a thingamajig full of coils and wires, she called the cops. Next thing he knew, he was being hauled off to jail in handcuffs, accused of trying to cause panic by assembling a phony bomb.
It didn’t help, of course, that he was a dark-skinned boy whose name identified him as a religious Muslim. Even his NASA t-shirt couldn’t save him from being considered a junior-grade terrorist. Now that the police have cleared him, he’s still suspended from school. Of course the ACLU has gotten involved. So have President Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom have put out the welcome mat for this promising young science whiz.
Clearly, being smart and geeky is a mixed blessing.
I took away the very same message from a new British film. It was originally called X +Y, but is being released (at least in the U.S.) as A Brilliant Young Mind. I suspected at first that we’re supposed to be lured into theatres by the similarity between this title and that of Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning drama about a grown-up mathematical genius with severe mental issues. But in fact this movie is the first feature of Morgan Matthews, the filmmaker behind the 2007 BBC documentary Beautiful Young Minds, which followed the fate of the British team competing in the 2006 International Mathematics Olympiad.
Most movies about competitions focus on the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Think of, for instance, another British film: Chariots of Fire. I also remember Spellbound (2002), a documentary that managed to find high drama in America’s 1999 National Spelling Bee. I don’t know the details of Matthews’ math team documentary. But I’m aware that in one of the contestants, Daniel Lightwing, Matthews found a young boy whose gifts and challenges have made him well worth portraying in a fictionalized context.
Matthews’ fictive hero, Nathan Ellis, resembles Daniel Lightwing in that he clearly belongs somewhere on the Autism spectrum. He has, for instance, a thing for prime numbers, and will only eat prawn balls when they come in groups of seven. His extreme social awkwardness has only been exacerbated by a family tragedy, from which his good-hearted mother (the always affecting Sally Hawkins) is desperately trying to rescue him. Nathan is played by Asa Butterfield, who was the beautiful little boy with enchanting blue eyes in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Now tall and gangly, he’s thoroughly convincing as an overgrown kid who cannot relate to people but has a brilliant comprehension of what the British call “maths.” A school teacher with problems of his own (Rafe Spall) discovers his mathematical gifts and coaches him for eventual acceptance on the British national team. This leads to a trip to Taipei and a close encounter with some formidable young math whizzes on the Mainland Chinese team.
I won’t give away what happens, but one of the joys of A Brilliant Young Mind is that it’s about people far more than it is about math. (Which is a good thing, because the intricate math problems solved in this film are far beyond my comprehension.) Let’s just say that victories sometimes can be found in unexpected places. I once knew a young boy so out of step with his classmates that they nicknamed him UFO. He grew up nicely, and I trust Nathan Ellis (and Daniel Lightwing) will do so too.