An autistic teenager finds his true calling as a mathematical virtuoso in this heart-breaking film based on real events.


Nathan Ellis is not like other children. He feels most secure in the patterns of routine and embraces mathematics with an unnerving passion. When he is diagnosed as autistic, his parents are warned that they could be facing “social and emotional” challenges. Nathan himself has a lot to say but is too afraid to articulate it. And, stupidly, people think he has nothing to say…


Having directed the documentary Beautiful Young Minds (2007) – about the International Mathematical Olympiad – Morgan Matthews couldn’t get the story of one particular student, Daniel Lightwing, out of his head. Daniel’s mathematical genius was borne out of a neurodevelopmental disorder, a condition that focused his mind on patterns and numbers. So the filmmaker has mounted his non-factual feature debut around the character. Here, Daniel is represented as Nathan Ellis, played with heart-breaking conviction and understatement by Asa Butterfield, until now best known as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and as Scorsese’s Hugo. There’s first-rate support from Rafe Spall as Nathan’s maths teacher Martin Humphreys, Sally Hawkins as Nathan’s exasperated and frustrated mother and Eddie Marsan as a robust squad leader for ‘Team UK’ at the Taipei preliminary for the Olympiad.



A different mind: Asa Butterfield as the brilliant but unconventional Nathan Ellis


It is in Taipei that Nathan discovers he is not alone in the world, as a fellow maths nerd (Alexa Davies) tells him: “Here, you are painstakingly average.” Indeed, in Taiwan he is billeted with another autistic boy, whose social graces are even further off-centre than Nathan’s. One might like to guess where the story is going, but Matthews is shrewd enough to root his film in the pain of real life, with only the final minute of the film hitting a false note.




Cast: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Jake Davies, Alexa Davies, Martin McCann, Alex Lawther.


Dir Morgan Matthews, Pro David M. Thompson and Laura Hastings-Smith, Screenplay James Graham, Ph Danny Cohen, Pro Des Richard Bullock, Ed Peter Lambert, Music Martin Phipps, Costumes Suzanne Cave.


Origin Pictures/Minnow Films-Koch Films.

111 mins. UK. 2014. Rel: 13 March 2015. Cert. 12A.