A Brilliant Young Mind (X+Y)


What could possibly be more English than this?

What could possibly be more English than this?

(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

2015 Florida Film Festival


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The Florida Film Festival has made their official announcement as to what movies and shorts they’ll be presenting this year and it is an impressive schedule indeed. Like last year, there will be 170 films on the schedule with more world premieres than the Festival has ever presented. There are also more movies by a very large margin directed by women this year.

As Enzian president Henry Maldonado is fond of saying about the Festival, there really is something for everybody. While we won’t be previewing every one of the 170 films being presented this year here, here are some to whet your appetite for the festival this year.

This year’s opening night film is Welcome to Me which stars Kristen Wiig as a socially challenged and borderline personality disorder woman who wins $86 million in the lottery and decides to purchase a talk show with it – with her as the host and the only guest. After her performance in last years The Skeleton Twins she’s definitely on the fast track to become one of the premiere comic actresses in Hollywood.

At the top of my personal list of must-sees at the festival is Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter which features Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi as a Japanese office drone caught in a dreary life. After watching Fargo and mistaking it for a documentary, she becomes obsessed with the idea that there is buried treasure in South Dakota – and she means to find it, setting off a journey that will change her forever. Fans of nature documentaries will get the opportunity to catch DisneyNature’s Monkey Kingdom a full week before it opens in theaters across the country as the intrepid DisneyNature camera crew heads into the jungles of Thailand to follow a family of monkeys displaced from their homes.

Previously reviewed here in Cinema365, The Search for General Tso looks at one of the most beloved Chinese-American dishes, how it came to be, and essentially the history of Chinese cuisine and culture in the United States. If it doesn’t make you hungry for Chinese food, I don’t know what will. Grazers looks at a farming co-operative that tries to survive in a world dominated by big agribusiness and increasingly hostile to small family farmers.

Aspie Seeks Love follows the search of a man afflicted with Asperger’s Disease for true love, which is a subject most of us can relate to. Limited Partnership follows the first same-sex couple in the world to get married and the obstacles they faced in merely trying to be allowed to live together in a documentary that is likely to get your blood boiling and your heartstrings tugged. Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound follows one of the most influential figures in modern country music that you’ve never heard of.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is an awkwardly titled but charming Swedish film about a dynamite expert who has lived a colorful life who decides to escape the retirement home he has been warehoused in on the occasion of his 100th birthday. X+Y is a lovely Irish film about a young man with social issues finding self-confident when he is selected to represent Ireland in the International Math Olympiad.

Sunshine Superman profiles Carl Boenish, the progenitor of base jumping which answers the question “Who was crazy enough to do it first?” Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy looks at a notorious murder in Denver that would expose corruption in the Denver police department as well as in the Denver media but would not break the friendship of two unjustly accused men.

The Tribe won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year and is entirely without dialogue, subtitles, music or sound effects, putting us in the world of the deaf-mute characters who are themselves played by deaf-mute non-professionals. Taking place in a school for deaf and mute teens, a new arrival learns to navigate the sometimes dangerous currents of a school ruled by a gang who with the tacit approval of the school’s administration are involved with drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion and assault.

The Editor is a midnight cult classic in the making from the wild Canadian filmmakers co-op Astron-6 who give us their take on an Italian giallo with a film editor who loses his fingers in a bizarre accident becomes the number one suspect when a series of gruesome murders take place among the lead actors of the bottom-feeding films he’s been working on. The Case of the Three-Sided Dream is a documentary about jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk and his unique style of playing.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is the story of the National Lampoon, the magazine that began at Harvard and became the touchstone of comedy in the 70s and 80s, helping shape Saturday Night LiveSCTV, and a series of movies that included the Vacation series. Reversal is a horror tale of revenge and human trafficking that shocked audiences at Sundance earlier this year.

Tomorrow We Disappear follows the Bohemian residents of an Indian slum who are fighting to protect their homes from a developer who wants to build a shopping mall there. Welcome to Leith is a terrifying documentary about a white supremacist who attempts to take over a North Dakota town. The Keeping Room is the harrowing experience of three young women in the waning days of the Civil War trying to protect their farm from a pair of rogue Union soldiers. Gabriel follows a young man on a trial release from the hospital where he has been institutionalized for mental illness

The Festival will also be presenting three different movies on the Enzian lawn that are free admission for anyone who wants to come. (500) Days of Summer, Donnie Darko and Amalie are all quality movies and well worth seeing, particularly in the cozy confines of the Enzian lawn. As far as screenings for other films that aren’t new, Godard’s French New Wave classic Alphaville will be the closing night retrospective and Girl Happy will be presented in Winter Park’s Central Park.

As always there will be celebrity guests. The great Sam Rockwell, one of my favorite actors working today, will be present for a screening of maybe his best film, Moon, followed by a Q&A afterwards. Also, Bob Balaban will be on hand to talk about his long career as one of Hollywood’s best character actors and also a pretty good director in his own right.

There are also parties, panel discussions and informal get-togethers in the Eden Bar. It is an opportunity to rub shoulders with filmmakers and film buffs and talk about movies both famous and not. Those looking to buy tickets can still purchase packages that run from $50 for five vouchers for any five movies (which you can choose before they go on sale to the general public) to $180 for twenty. You can also get passes which range from the Matinee pass which admits you to all movies that begin before 5 PM (except for special screenings such as An Afternoon With…) for $99 to the fancy shmancy Producer Pass which gets you early entry to every film and entry to every event at the Festival. That’ll only set you back $1500. More popular is the Film Lover’s Pass which runs $600 and gets you early entry to all films, access to press screenings so you can get an early jump on your festival viewing and admittance to the opening night party.  Individual tickets go on sale this Saturday the 21st and can be purchased online, by phone or in person at the Enzian box office.

As with years past, Cinema365 intends to give as much coverage to the Festival as is humanly possible. All Festival-related reviews will include the Festival banner, which includes a link to their online ticketing system in case you want to purchase tickets yourself. There is also a link to it in the picture at the top of the post; just click on it and whoosh, there you are.

This is an event we at Cinema365 look forward to all year long. It is a chance to catch up with old friends, meet new ones and discover films we might not ordinarily have had a chance to see. It is one of the most filmgoer-friendly festivals in the country and consistently shows up in lists of top Film Festivals around the world. It is an event you shouldn’t miss and if you are or can be in the Orlando area from April 10th through April 19th, you owe it to yourself to check this out. If you can make it, be sure and drop us a line at cinema365@live.com and let us know so we can meet up. Look forward to seeing you all there!