(2014) Drama (Goldwyn) Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Orion Lee, Edward Baker-Close, Percelle Ascott, Suraj Rattu, Jamie Ballard, Clare Burt, Adam Foster, Lee Zhuo Zhao, Shannon Beer, Tasha Connor, Lawrence Jeffries, Ciaran Wakefield, Song Chang, Bo-Han Huang, Christina Low. Directed by Morgan Matthews
Those who show any intelligence in our culture are often ostracized for it. When you add to that a touch of autism or any other emotional or developmental disorder and it spells an equation for a lonely childhood. Often it is the most gifted of our species who end up being the most misunderstood.
Nathan Ellis (Butterfield) is a math prodigy. He sees the patterns in everything and is fascinated by things like prime numbers, calculus and Fibonacci sequences. His father (McCann) was his biggest supporter and he and dad had a special bond until his father was killed tragically. Now his mom Julie (Hawkins) is left to raise him alone.
But Nathan is more than just good at maths (the British slang for mathematics); he’s also got a trace of autism and a form of aphasia. Socially he is very closed off; he hates to be touched and he is very particular that things fit into rigid patterns to the point that the prawn balls he orders from his favorite Chinese take-out (takeaway if you’re British) is from a combination plate that is a prime number and the number of prawn balls on the plate must fit in the Fibonacci sequence. It’s enough to drive his poor mum half-mad but she has the patience of a saint more or less although there are times she feels more alone than the average single mum – not only is she without a husband but her son is distant and doesn’t like touching her or being touched by her. Think about being robbed of pretty much all human contact and you might get an idea of what Julie’s going through.
But Nathan’s math prowess catches the attentions of the school’s headmaster (Ballard) who orders math teacher Martin Humphreys (Spall) to tutor the young whiz. Martin was once a prodigy like Nathan but the onset of multiple sclerosis effectively sabotaged him in the International Mathematics Olympiad when he was on the British team and led him to a life of drinking and disappointment. Martin is not happy about the situation but sees something of himself in Nathan and agrees to take him on.
Martin’s unconventional teaching methods prove to be effective for Nathan and despite a little bit of forced suspense (that won’t fool any veteran moviegoer), Nathan eventually makes the British math team and goes to Taiwan to train for the event, chaperoned by gravelly math teacher Richard (Marsan) who is more concerned about winning the event against the heavily favored Chinese team (who have won the last three) than in the well-being of the boys.
For Nathan’s part, his eyes are opened when he discovers that the other boys are at least as brilliant – and some more so – than he, and most are just as socially awkward. He is also assigned a study partner from the Chinese team, Yang Jo (Mei). Much to the audience’s surprise, Nathan begins to develop a great deal of affection for Yang, who to be truthful is depicted here as an utter ray of sunshine, one of the few really nice to be around people in the movie which is filled with smart people who can be utterly rotten.
As the pressure mounts, Nathan’s personal growth still requires some work and while Yang is working on it, Nathan’s relationship with his mother – who has developed a relationship with Martin – is reaching the breaking point. And Nathan has reached a point where he must decide what is most important to him – his beloved numbers or the people who care for him.
When I saw the previews for this film, I didn’t have high hopes for it. After all, the “smart/socially awkward genius” trope has been done to death as has been the mind/sports athlete underdog film. The latter are often documentaries and while this is not, director Morgan Matthews did a documentary on the English Math Olympiad team that largely inspired this movie, although this one is completely fictionalized. The trailer made the movie look pretty typical.
It’s anything but. Yes, there is a certain heart-warming element to it, but it is earned. The characters are completely realistic and if not down-to-earth, feel like they could be slapping shoe leather on this planet. Nathan is capable of cruelty and heartlessness, most often in regards to his mom, but let the audience still roots for him. Mei, Marsan and Spall all deliver strong performances in supporting roles.
Hawkins is a brilliant actress who has been nominated for an Oscar in the past and likely will be again in the future, although not necessarily for this. She could play Julie as the martyr which perhaps in the minds of other actresses she might be, but as Hawkins plays her she’s just a mom coping with tragedy and an imperfect relationship with her son; she is just trying to make things as good as possible for him, as “normal” as possible. Hawkins plays the part with humor and with charm; I wanted to hang out with Julie too, not just with the math whizzes who were frankly a little bit beyond me, which was okay – I’m sure if I started talking movies around most of them they’d be as lost as I am when they talk algorithms.
What I liked about the movie most of all is that the movie treats Nathan’s issues matter of factly as a part of life. Of most of the autistic people I’ve known, Butterfield’s portrayal comes closest to who they are; yes, they are a little different than the so-called normal people and they require a little bit more patience in some cases but otherwise they are just like you and just like me.
I really liked this movie a lot; it’s one of the best ones I’ve seen this year. The performances are strong and the writing is as well. If there is a workman-like quality to some of the story when it comes to portraying the love story, it can be forgiven because the relationships in the movie are so real. While the theatrical run for this film is essentially over, it is certainly one to look for on home video once it is released there.
REASONS TO GO: Warm-hearted without being treacly. Treats autism with respect and realism. Doesn’t overload with math. Fine performances from Spall and Hawkins.
REASONS TO STAY: A few Hollywood-type tropes in here.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual references and a few expletives here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story is loosely based in Daniel Lightwing, an actual math prodigy and current mathematician.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happy-Go-Lucky
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Beasts of No Nation