Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Morgan Matthews
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Martin McCann, Jo Yang.
This moving drama about an autistic teenage maths prodigy is something of a cross between A Beautiful Mind, The Big Bang Theory and an adolescent RainMan. The film itself has been based on director Morgan Matthews’ own 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds, which looked at the prestigious International Mathematics Olympiad, an international competition that brings together the best and brightest from around the world. This is a fictitious treatment of the trials and triumphs of these gifted teens.
The central character here is Nathan (a superb performance from Asa Butterfield, from The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, Hugo, etc), an autistic boy who is better dealing with numbers than people. He was close to his father, the only person who really understood his eccentricities and was able to communicate with him and share his passions. But after a tragic car crash killed his father, Nathan has seemed more withdrawn, and is emotionally distant from his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) who is frustrated by her inability to reach him and communicate with him on the same level. But recognising his gifts for mathematics, she hires a tutor in the unconventional and damaged Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall), who takes the boy under his wing. Eventually he is invited to try out for a place with the British squad for the next Olympiad.
He wins a place and is soon off to Taipei for intense training camp with a Chinese team as part of an exchange program. There he finds himself amongst a group of nerds and geeks, each with their own psychological hangups and socially awkward ways, so his oddness, shyness and reticence do not make him stand out. He is partnered with the bright Zhang (Jo Yang), and for the first time he begins to fell strong emotions. He also finds a new found sense of confidence. These feelings are alien to Nathan and leave him confused and uncertain. And meanwhile, his mother and Humphreys are developing a strong and close relationship as well.
X + Y is a beautiful, honest little film and has been written with a great deal of sympathy and compassion by Matthews and television writer James Graham (Gypsy Boy, Sex Diary Of A Call Girl, etc). What is remarkable about how the film unfolds is that it doesn’t follow the expected formula, and Matthews and Graham subvert our expectations with a couple of twists.
The film benefits from the wonderful performances of its cast. Butterfield is a revelation here and this is the best performance of the youngster’s career. He is heartbreakingly good and delivers a natural, nuanced and subtle performance that captures Nathan’s emotional awkwardness and foibles. Hawkins is also touching and brings a vulnerability to her role as his mother. Spall is also excellent as the sarcastic, bitter, alcoholic Humphreys who begins to rediscover his humanity and pride, but he seems to be channeling Michael Caine circa Educating Rita. And Eddie Marsan, who is so often cast as a tough guy or bully, is cast against type here and he lightens up with a winning performance as Richard, the chaperone and head of the British contingent.
Technically, the film is also superb, with Danny Cohen’s gorgeous cinematography and Martin Phipps’ emotional music score adding to the generally upbeat mood. X + Y is a gem, an endearing, heartfelt little film that stands out as one of the better releases so far this year and deserves to be seen.