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Melanie Laurent is an artist probably best known in the U.S. for her role as the Jewish girl who escapes the clutches of Christoph Waltz in the opening of the film Inglourious Basterds. But she doesn’t seem to be somebody who is only going to do one thing. Not only does she sing, but she has also branched out into directing and screenwriting.
Her most recent film, Breathe (her second feature), written by her and Julien Lambroschini from a novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme, is a very assured character study of Charlie, a high school teenager who suddenly finds her outer and inner world spiraling out of control.
The cause of this chaos is the arrival at her school of a transfer student, Sarah. At first Sarah seems sweet and good natured (in a rather clever little opening bit on her first appearance) and she quickly and very determinedly ingratiates herself into Charlie’s life.
But it’s not long before the audience sees what Charlie can’t. That Sarah has a darker aspect to her personality. In fact, it almost immediately becomes clear that Sarah is a sociopath. She quickly manipulates Charlie into dropping her present best friend without Charlie realizing she has done so. And it’s not long before the two new friends are inseparable.
There is an erotic aspect to their friendship, but it never goes there. But Sarah is moody and given to fits of petty anger and after a long holiday weekend where the two join Charlie’s mother in the country, Sarah suddenly changes. She stops hanging out with Charlie, joins a different group and even starts turning people against her previous best friend.
And Charlie is lost. She doesn’t understand what is happening, why Sarah is acting the way she is, what to do about it. She can’t even really tell anyone about it because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And the conflicts grow and grow until…
Well, I won’t spoil it, but I do have to say that as much as I liked the movie and do recommend it, it has so much going for it, the ending was a bit of a letdown. To be honest, I just didn’t buy it. It felt forced and seemed like one of those twist endings that a writer pastes on at the end of the script because they didn’t know how to end it or didn’t trust their material (though, I assume, the book must end the same way).
I think another reason why I had issues with it is that it was inordinately cruel to Charlie. Here she is, being ruthlessly bullied by Sarah and not being able to really doing anything about it, and then the writers do this to her, not Sarah, not the circumstances. In other words, the writers end up bullying Charlie far more than Sarah does.
And because of that, we don’t have a tragedy, we just have a twist ending to a melodrama and I think this was something of a disservice to how excellent the film was up until then.
Laurent and Lambroschini do a wonderful job of capturing what it is like to be an average teenager at an average school with, because of some issues her parents are having, slightly above average problems. Charlie’s world is very evocatively presented and it all feels so convincingly real.
Josephine Japy plays Charlie and Lou de Laage plays Sara and they have an incredible and palpable chemistry that makes for edge of your seat tension at times. You often feel as frustrated and outraged as Charlie does.
For those into trivia, her father, Pierre Laurent, dubs the voice of Ned Flanders for the French version of The Simpsons.
Like Charlie, the world of Nathan Ellis, the hero of writer James Graham and director Morgan Matthews’ new film A Brilliant Young Mind (called X+Y in its native country), is one that also seems to be spiraling out of control.
There is an irony to this because Nathan was born borderline autistic but is a savant when it comes to math (or maths, I suppose, since the movie comes from England), so everything to him is as logical and precise as numbers.
So brilliant is he, that as a teen he is asked to study for and compete in the IMO, the International Mathematical Olympiad, and in doing so, he is forced more and more to come out of his shell whereupon he discovers that the world is more than maths, that it is full of incomprehensible wonders, emotions that make no sense, events that have no logic and the potential to break your heart.
A Brilliant Young Mind is a feel good movie that gives feel good movies a good name. Usually when I see something that is as sincere as this movie starts out being, I want to reach for the nearest gun to put myself out of my misery.
But A Brilliant Young Mind comes about its emotions honestly. It’s filled with people who are often damaged goods. Nathan not only doesn’t know how to fit in socially, can’t stand to be touched, and is wallflower shy, the only person who ever connected with him on a personal level was his father who died in a terrible accident when he was young.
His mother Julie loves her son, but is frustrated that she can’t reach him like her husband did. His maths tutor, Martin, once a prodigy as well, is now an empty shell who drinks too much and is suffering from multiple sclerosis. And the head of the IMO team, Richard, is a pompous egomaniac.
Even Nathan’s fellow geeks on the math team do what so many cliques do: join together and pick on the weakest of them all, another brilliant young mind who finds it even more difficult to fit in than Nathan and cuts himself because of the way everyone treats him.
Nathan’s world becomes so incomprehensible that he finds himself, without really being aware of it, to be sought after romantically by two fellow teens. The first is someone on Nathan’s own team who teaches him to play piano, and the second the cousin of the head of the Chinese team who takes Nathan on a tour of Thailand where the teens have been taken to prepare for the qualifying tests and then becomes his guest when she comes to England to compete.
The movie doesn’t quite go the way you think it is and the ending, which is somewhat unexpected, yet so perfect, is deeply moving and inspiring. People make connections, take second looks at their lives and find ways to take control of their future.
A Brilliant Young Mind is a first fiction feature for Graham and Matthews. Before this, Matthews focus was on documentaries, mainly for TV. This film, in fact, is inspired by one of those movies, Beautiful Young Minds. Both Graham and Mathews do a marvelous job of capturing the reality of these teens’ lives and are very deft at dramatizing the difficulties the adults are going through.
Asa Butterfield (Hugo of Hugo) is Nathan; Sally Hawkins is his mother; Rafe Spall is his tutor; and Eddie Marsan is the head of the British IMO team.
All give strong and empathetic performances with Hawkins standing out in an intense portrayal of a frustrated mother who struggles to understand her son and finally has a break through.