UK Release Date: 13th March 2015
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Morgan Matthews
Writer: James Graham
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Jo Yang, Eddie Marsan, Martin McCann, Alex Lawther, Jake Davies
Synopsis: An autistic young boy finds his calling in mathematics and trains to be part of the British team at the International Mathematical Olympiad.
The portrayal of triumph against adversity on the big screen is often the path to syrupy, self-important drama. However, in the case of documentary filmmaker Morgan Matthews’ uplifting Brit flick X+Y, the conventional storytelling is served with emotional heft and a huge side order of comedy.
Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition at a young age, soon before his father’s death (Martin McCann). His awkwardness is aided when his mother (Sally Hawkins) sees his aptitude for maths. She hires Humphreys (Rafe Spall) to nurture Nathan’s talent and eventually gets him into Richard’s (Eddie Marsan) British International Mathematical Olympiad team, where he befriends Chinese student Zhang Mei (Jo Yang).
X+Y is a deeply affecting drama, with a quintessentially British feel. Morgan Matthews, adapting a fictionalised version of his 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds, creates an emotional story of personal discovery, set against the backdrop of competitive mathematics. His stellar direction combines with a tight, well-judged script from British playwright James Graham.
| "When somebody says they love you, it means they see something in you they think is worth something."
At the centre of the film is Hugo and Ender’s Game star Asa Butterfield in what is, by some distance, his most mature role to date. Butterfield does a great job despite not saying very much, boasting a great array of physical tics and facial expressions. It’s a performance of remarkable sensitivity that conveys the character’s difficulties, whilst never feeling insensitive or exploitative.
Nathan’s journey of personal and emotional discovery as he develops feelings for Jo Yang’s friendly Chinese mathematician is conveyed with great intelligence and subtlety. The delicate performances and the script both control this facet of the story, ensuring that it never becomes overwrought or cheesy. This is also true in the case of Sally Hawkins, who effectively reprises her charmingly mumsy role from Paddington.
Across the board, director Matthews coaxes excellent work from the young cast of X+Y. Rising star Jake Davies is another standout as another autistic boy, whose desire to fit in manifests in ways that mark him out as obviously different. His uncomfortable rendition of the iconic dead parrot sketch from Monty Python is an exruciating highlight.
Extraordinary sensitivity is a theme that runs throughout X+Y. As well as the intelligent work of the young cast, Rafe Spall brings remarkable depth to a role that, especially early on, feels like comic relief. Spall’s relaxed delivery brings the funniest lines of Graham’s script to life, but it’s the way in which his character deals with his own illness – multiple sclerosis – that marks the role out as something special. His is a character that retreats into comedy at his most difficult moments, only for the facade to occasionally slip, to great effect.
| "Because I don’t talk much, people think that I don’t have anything to say."
Nuance and heart is always at the centre of X+Y’s storytelling, which allows it to get away with things that would usually come across as hokey. In the hands of Hawkins and Butterfield, a third act deconstruction of love in mathematical terms is charming where it could easily have drifted into saccharine nonsense.
And that’s the beautiful thing about X+Y. On the surface, it’s a simple, almost schematic drama about a young man attempting to overcome his personal issues. However, this isn’t a film that jumps straight to the answer. It’s keen to show its working as well.
Pop or Poop?
With a strong emotional core and a cast of stellar performances, X+Y is one of the best British accomplishments of 2015 so far.
Asa Butterfield delivers in his meatiest role to date, with Rafe Spall also moving out of his traditional, broadly comedic performances. The rest of the young cast also achieve highly, including Jake Davies and Jo Yang.
Morgan Matthews brings subtlety and oodles of charm to his story, creating a film of great warmth.
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