Director: Morgan Matthews
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: March 13th
Loosely based on the lives of the young subject of his 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds, Morgan Matthews’ debut feature film, X+Y focuses on Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield, Edward Baker-Close as a child), a teenage Maths wiz diagnosed at an early age as being on the autistic spectrum. After his father dies in a car accident, Nathan enrols in a school under the supervision of his teacher Martin (Rafe Spall) who was himself considered a maths prodigy until the development of multiple sclerosis along with his own personal demons put an end to his potential. Several years later and Nathan gets the chance to travel to Taiwan for the opportunity to qualify to represent the British team in the International Mathematical Olympiad.
Given that Nathan is obsessed with patterns, it was this obsession that got him into mathematics; it won’t come as to much as a surprise that X+Y follows a very formulaic story. Perhaps to the disappointment to maths nerds, the film doesn’t have much of an interest with hard-line mathematics so much as following Nathan’s coming of age story. This is the main focus of the film, particularly when the action moves to Taiwan and Nathan is paired up with a Chinese counterpart named Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). Due to Nathan’s condition he has always acted quite shy and insular even towards his mother, played by Sally Hawkins. Up till this point in the film, only his father (Martin McCann) was able to form any deep relationship before his death, much to the frustration of his mother who despite all her efforts and patience can’t seem to find a way through to him. Unused to any changes or challenges to his familiar pattern, Nathan’s growing relationship with Zhang creates an internal problem for him as he starts to come out of his shell.
While the conventional structure of the story may drag the film down from time to time, fortunately strong performances from all the cast keeps the film moving along. Hawkins is great as the mother who desperately wants to find a way to connect to her withdrawn son and while Spall’s sardonic teacher adds some humour to the proceedings, his character gradually begins to show more layers as the film progresses, particularly in a scene where he opens himself up in a group therapy session about the effects of his disease on his psyche and his fear about the damage it would have on his loved ones.
As Nathan, Asa Butterfield does a pretty solid joy in a quite tricky role. Nathan is emotionally withdrawn, a result of his autism, and to him being in the car and witnessing his father’s death. As a result he could easily come across as being cold and unlikable. Butterfield’s performance manages to keep us on his side and gives us a sense of what he is going through even though he is unable to express himself emotionally. There are also great supporting performances from the young supporting cast, particularly from Yang and from Jake Davies as a socially awkward teammate of Nathans who suffers from a more extreme version of autism.
While the story isn’t as strong as perhaps it should have been, the performances, along with the director’s sensitive handling of the conditions of its characters, resonate enough charm to keep the film completely likable throughout. That lack of a strong story means that as engaging as the characters are, the film as a whole doesn’t work as well as it should, which given the talent that are on screen is a real shame.