Movie Review: Love and Competitive Math

Chances are, you never knew there was an annual International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), where nations around the world (over 100 in recent years) send a team of six pre-collegiate mathematics students to compete for individual and team medals.

The IMO, held this year in Chiang Mai, Thailand in July, complete with opening and closing ceremonies, takes place on two successive days, on each of which the competitors sit a grueling four-and-a-half hour examination.

Each exam comprises three questions, so the expectation is that it will take about an hour and a half to solve each problem - though many competitors are unable to answer more than one or two of the total six.

If you are having trouble coming to grips with the idea of spending nine hours struggling to solve really difficult math problems, under strict exam conditions, voluntarily, for fun, and most people do find that hard to grasp, then a new movie to be released on September 11 will open your eyes to a whole other world. (A world where some super bright young people live before they go on to earn the big money at companies like Google.)

Directed by British film-maker Morgan Matthews, A Brilliant Young Mind stars the talented young British actor Asa Butterfield (who starred as Ender in Ender's Game, opposite Harrison Ford) as a first-time entrant in the Olympiad on the British team.

Clearly, with the best young mathematical minds in a nation needing ninety minutes to solve a problem (if they solve it at all), IMO questions are not the kinds of math problems you find in a typical high school math textbook. Some of them require knowledge of advanced math, but there are always a few that, on the face of it, look fairly simple. At least, you don't need to have completed an advanced math class to understand what the question says. Here is one from the recent 2015 Olympiad:

Determine all triples (a,b,c) of positive whole numbers such that each of the numbers ab - c, bc - a, ca - b is a (whole-number) power of 2.

See how far you get in an hour and a half. Or spend the same amount of time watching the movie.

The story follows Nathan Ellis (played by Butterfield), a British student (the movie was made by BBC Films) as he goes through the grueling process of preparing for and taking the test to qualify for team pre-selection in the British National Mathematical Competition, going off to a training camp in Taiwan, where the final team of six is selected in a mock IMO competition, and then heading to Cambridge, England, for the international competition itself.

Both the mathematics and the mathematics competitions are handled well. You won't learn any math in the film, but you do get a voyeuristic look at the world of competitive math problem solving.

On first viewing, I felt that the romantic thread between the Asa Butterfield character (Nathan Ellis) and the young female Chinese math whiz he meets at the training camp, played by Jo Yang, was a crass Hollywood device to create a movie with mainstream audience appeal. ("Not many people like math, but millions like a good love story." There's no sex in the film, by the way. The two lead characters do spend a night together, but all you see is them reading a math book together in bed as they prepare for the competition the next morning.)

But then I watched the original BBC documentary that A Brilliant Young Mind director Morgan Matthews made back in 2006, on which he based the movie, and guess what? The story in A Brilliant Young Mind stays pretty close to real life! Right down to what at first viewing of the movie I thought were syrupy shots included purely for romantic effect. (Cue the rainbow in the background as the British and Chinese math whizzes travel by train through the British countryside. Taken right out of real life!)

I still found the film's final ending formulaically disappointing, but no more so than many other box office successes. Other than that, it's definitely worth watching.

Watch the official trailer for A Brilliant Young Mind here.

See Morgan Matthews' BBC documentary on which the movie is based here.

Interestingly enough, an American documentary film maker, George Csicery, followed the US IMO team at the same time that Morgan was filming the UK team. Csicery's film Hard Problems, is available for purchase from the Mathematical Association of America.

Finally, read the recent Huffington Post article by Daniel Lightwing, the British math whiz on which the Asa Butterfield character was based. (The movie was originally released in the UK last fall under the title X + Y.)