"I find any communication of a non-mathematical nature very difficult. Because I don't talk much, people think I don't have anything to say, or that I'm stupid. And that's not true. I have lots of things to say. I'm just afraid to say them. I know that I am strange in lots of ways. I think I see the world in a different way to other people. I've always been like that."
— Nathan Ellis
Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) is an English boy with autism who is a mathematics wizard. He has relied on the love and tender support of his father who then he is killed in an automobile crash. At the burial grounds, Nathan refuses to take the hand of his grieving mother Julie (Sally Hawkins). Autism keeps him quiet and isolated from others, and he refuses to connect with his mother whose love for him is deep and incredibly patient.
At school, Mr. Humphrey (Rafe Spall), an unconventional math teacher, works with this brilliant teenager. After completing a qualifying test, Nathan is one of 16 students from UK chosen to attend the prestigious Mathematical Olympiad. He travels to Taiwan to train with other winners from around the world. Throughout the film, it is clear that this focused young man loves the beauty of mathematics and has a passion for its patterns.
Director Morgan Matthews and screenplay writer James Graham could have just stayed with the drama of the Mathematical Olympiad but have wisely chosen to add emotional richness and density to Nathan's coming-of-age experience. We are deeply moved as we watch him slowly open up to those around him who truly care for him. Rafe Spall gives an emotionally vibrant performance as his math teacher who is facing a mid-life crisis and battling multiple sclerosis. Eddie Marsan plays the squad leader for the English mathematicians and keeps them on their toes. And Sally Hawkins shines as Nathan's maltreated mother.
It is fascinating to watch Asa Butterfield's nuanced depiction of Nathan who flinches when touched; speaks softly and tentatively when he breaks out of silence; and surprises everyone with his change of heart brought on by the affection and hopefulness of Zheng Mei (Jo Yang), a young mathematician from China who develops a crush on him.