A familiar story

movieposterThursday evening, I watched the MAA special screening of A Brilliant Young Mind, starring Sally Hawkins and Asa Butterfield. The movie follows a young man on the autism spectrum who finds solace in doing mathematics. His dream is to go to the International Mathematical Olympiad, and most of the movie follows this process and his training, first by an unconventional teacher in the UK, and then at a math camp in Taipei.

I enjoyed the movie, and it was well-made (shot beautifully and brilliantly scored), with incredible acting from the three main stars: Rafe Spall was very convincing as a bitter, but kind, man struggling with MS, Butterfield brought a good balance of detachment and neediness, and Hawkins is perfect in everything she does. The main message of the movie is easily summarized by its tagline: “True genius comes from opening your heart.” Most of the movie people are obsessed by external validation: the teacher wants his student to shine, the student wants an IMO medal, the mother wants her son to love her in a way he can’t. By the end, they find value in themselves. Especially Nathan Ellis, the young hero, finds connection and love with another math competitor, reconciles with his mother, and discovers that there are things far more important than being “clever”.

Overall, I do like the message. My problem is that the structure is a very well-tread upon series of events taking the young awkward boy, who is so socially awkward he can only do math, to a young man who gets a girlfriend and (maybe) stops caring about math. The implications are that math is only for those who cannot make emotional connections, and even more so awkward, white males. There are some girls in the math teams, one of whom becomes the love interest, but her role is weakened by the fact that she supposedly only makes the team because her uncle is the coach, and then decides to quit because she doesn’t believe she is good enough. The love story is very cute, but could have been connected to the math life a little better. For example, why can’t we show that you can be in young puppy-love and still like doing math? Why did the star have to be a boy, and not a girl? My main problem with the movie is that we have seen this story many times before (most notably in Good Will Hunting), and the setting, actors, and drama of the IMO could have been much better used to tell a story with the same message: that it’s important to make human connections, and that medals and recognition are not the reason to do math.

Overall it was a pleasant movie, but it could have been much better with a few tweaks. The movie comes out in DVD at the end of the month, in case you’re interested.

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