A Brilliant Young Mind has all the makings of a great fictional narrative: a young protagonist played by an award-winning actor (Asa Butterfield) has a developmental disorder but is also incredibly gifted, and with the encouragement of a wise mentor, he battles his given circumstances to rise to the top and find his place in the world. The story is inherently cinematic, so it might surprise you to learn that A Brilliant Young Mind is based on a true story. Butterfield's character Nathan is based on real-life mathematical genius Daniel Lightwing, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Lightwing was featured in the BBC documentary Beautiful Young Minds, which followed the selection, training, and competition of the British team for the 2006 International Mathematics Olympiad.
Watching the film, Director Morgan Matthews was in awe of the brilliant young competitors featured, and Lightwing in particular fascinated the filmmaker with his complex uniqueness. Matthews felt that Lightwing's story was sufficient for a feature film, and so he decided to make one. The result is A Brilliant Young Mind, which was originally released in the U.K. last year under the title X+Y. The film is based on Lightwing's real life and was made with his blessing, but nevertheless, it took some artistic liberties. Here are a few notable ways in which A Brilliant Young Mind differs from Lightwing's actual experiences.
His Mentor Was A Woman
The first person in the film to realize Nathan's gift for mathematics is his tutor Mr. Hutchinson, played by Rafe Spall. Daniel did in fact have a teacher who spotted his academic potential and became his mentor, but it was a woman named Miggy Biller. Biller is the Head of Maths at York College, and she was invited to attend the premiere of the film in London with Daniel.
His Father Is Alive
One typical Hollywood device to which the film succumbs is the tragic death of a parental figure. Nathan's father dies when the boy is young, which seems to contribute to his stunted emotional growth. In fact, Daniel Lightwing's father is very much alive, and he attended the film premiere alongside his son.
The Competition Was In Slovenia
A Brilliant Young Mind shows the IMO as taking place in Cambridge, when in fact the year that Lightwing attended, the actual event was in Slovenia. However, the training camp for the competition took place in China, and Daniel did have a love affair with — and eventually marry — a Chinese woman (although they are no longer together).
The Math Is A Lot Harder
Former IMO competitor Adam Goucher noted in a piece for The Guardian that, in comparison to the actual experience of a maths Oympian, the film made some "oversimplifications and departures from reality necessary for a coherent storyline." In particular, he points out how unrealistically simple some of the math problems presented in the film are in comparison to real IMO-level problems, which can take hours to solve. I can see how this would be frustrating to someone who experienced the real thing, but I can also understand why Morgan didn't opt to make a days-long movie of Nathan solving more representatively difficult problems in real-time.
The differences between A Brilliant Young Mind and Daniel's actual story are perhaps best stated by real-life mentor Miggy Biller. After going to the premiere with Lightwing, she told the York College newsletter: "We sat beside each other at the showing, chuckling together about some of the film’s maths problems. It was funny to look at the line between fact and fiction being trod all the time by the film! Dan’s Dad, sitting just behind us, saw himself killed in a car accident … and I don’t think I need to say that I didn’t recognise myself in Rafe Spall!" However, both mentor and mentee were ultimately impressed with the movie. Biller commented, "It’s a brilliant and very moving film, and Asa Butterfield is amazing.” Lightwing has similarly offered his praise for the film, telling the Evening Standard, "I cried the first three times I watched it. It says things I was feeling but could not express."
So while A Brilliant Young Mind might not be totally true, it's certainly just as emotional and compelling as the real story it's inspired by.
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