It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The title of Morgan Matthews’ “A Brilliant Young Mind” all too obviously echoes that of Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind,” but although both films concern mentally challenged mathematics prodigies, they are otherwise almost exact opposites: where the 2001 multiple Oscar winner offered a compendium of Hollywood moviemaking strengths, this BBC Films import mainly serves up TV-style triteness and warmed-over clichés.
The new work belongs to that large group of films whose makers seem to assume they derive some benefit from assuring us that their fiction is “based on true events.” In this case, what’s meant is that it derives from a documentary previously directed by Matthews, “Beautiful Young Minds,” about a group of students preparing for the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO).
From Jeffrey Blitz’s “Spellbound” on, kids-in-competitive-mind-sports films have become a documentary mini-genre unto themselves. And it may be that documentary is the best form for such stories, since no matter how many fictional tropes are used to shape them, they have the authenticity of showing us real people in actual situations. Replace those with made-up characters and invented conflicts and too often what’s most fascinating about the real material gets drowned in predictable dramatic contrivances.
That’s what happens in “A Brilliant Young Mind,” which is based on a cliché-clotted script by James Graham. We’ve barely been introduced to young Nathan Ellis (played as a nine-year-old by Edward Baker-Close) and his dad (Martin McCann), when the two jump into the family car and dad is killed in a collision. As the film keeps reminding us thereafter, dad was Nathan’s main emotional support, since he believed his introverted son’s fascination with primary numbers made him “special” rather than odd.