Plenty of wonderful little films, without the backing of a PR juggernaut, completely slip under the radar. This is one such film.
Asa Butterfield, who almost got Hugo over the line, is Nathan, the gifted but autistic son of widowed Julie (Sally Hawkins).
After the trauma of losing his father, Nathan finds a friend in Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a devoted if unorthodox schoolteacher whose multiple sclerosis affords him an insight into his star pupil’s sense of alienation.
When nominations for inclusion in the British team for the International Mathematics Olympiad are sought, Nathan is encouraged to go for it by Humphreys and team leader Richard (a bearded Eddie Marsan in a rare opportunity to act upbeat).
Rising above adversity and conquering timidity is a journey that is far too often treated as cheesy melodrama – especially when teens are involved – but director Morgan Matthews, with a long CV of television docos to his credit, takes a quieter, more watchful approach.
We are all familiar with the issues being teased out and don’t need to be spoon-fed. Things get even cosier for us when Nathan and the team fly to Taipei for training and acclimatisation before the big event.
He is billeted at the house of another competitor, the gorgeous Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), and both youngsters’ hearts and minds meet in unison.
At which point you may think that the story is a no-brainer, the conclusion foregone – but there is so much more to it than that.
Self-discovery is never attained by formula, love and forgiveness never found without breaking through barriers of doubt, and learning is always about much more than just numerical equations.
Butterfield holds back and never crosses that line into gauche caricature (the infant Nathan is also well played by Edward Baker-Close), Spall and Marsan complement each other perfectly as Nathan’s spiritual and practical mentors, Hawkins is reliably adorable in her fragile, give-everything way, while Jo Yang you will love to bits (the kids’ first stolen kiss is to die for).
Don’t miss it.
~ John Campbell