Is there a formula for love?
Written by James Graham and directed by BAFTA Award winner Morgan Matthews, X+Y was inspired by Matthews’ 90-minute feature documentary, Beautiful Young Minds (2007), which follows the trials and triumphs of a handful of hopeful students attending the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO), a worldwide competition that brings together the best and brightest minds from around the globe. Proving to be a critical hit, being nominated for a BAFTA TV Award for Best Single Documentary, Beautiful Young Minds, examines a scholar named Daniel, who has a neuro-developmental disorder, which fosters mathematical genius. Following the documentary’s success, Matthews decided to create a dramatic retelling of a similar tale, a fictional story inspired by the personalities and events uncovered in his prior work.
X+Y follows Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield), a reserved, idiosyncratic teenager diagnosed with a neuro-developmental disorder which brings with it a fascination with numbers, colors and patterns of light. Grappling with the sudden passing of his father, Michael Ellis (Martin McCann) — the only person who really understood him — Nathan struggles to connect with those around him, particularly his compassionate mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins). Finding his comfort in numbers, Nathan is eventually introduced to an anarchic and unconventional Math teacher, Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), who takes the young Nathan under his wing and forges an unusual friendship with the boy. Fighting against the odds, Nathan eventually wins a place on the UK Mathematics Squad and, under the supervision of squad leader Richard (Eddie Marsan), flies to the capital of Taiwan, Taipei, alongside a handful of like-minded students, for a comprehensive training camp. Over there, the academically gifted aren’t bullied; they’re celebrated, envied and even invited to parties. Although Nathan’s rational brain can cope with even the most complex of equations, his real test begins after meeting the beautiful Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), his Chinese female exchange partner, who Nathan slowly starts developing feelings for. But when the young mathematicians return to England for the International Maths Olympiad, held at Trinity College, Cambridge, Nathan’s rational mind must manage with the most irrational thing of all … love.
While we’ve seen autism and Asperger’s depicted on screen before — most famously portrayed by Dustin Hoffman as the autistic Raymond in Rain Man (1988) — director Matthews takes a more delicate approach towards the subject matter with his involved, up-close-and-personal look at what it’s really like to suffer from a neuro-developmental disorder. Striving to convey the truth about the illness, the character at the center of the narrative is Nathan, a young boy who is fascinated by the world, but yet, finds it difficult to engage emotionally with those around him. Asa Butterfield — having studied Beautiful Young Minds countless times to bring authenticity to the character, while also visiting a number of schools that specialized in treating people with different mental disorders — is a delight to watch as misfit Nathan and truly excels, convincingly placing viewers in the character’s shoes. Carefully directed by Matthews, the young Butterfield delivers the finest performance of his already impressive career, surpassing his fine work in even the likes of Hugo (2011) and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008). Furthermore, Butterfield’s connection with love interest, newcomer Jo Yang, is plausible, feels genuine and most importantly, makes sense.
Likewise, Oscar nominated actress Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), is terrific with her peerlessly warm portrayal of Nathan’s underappreciated and very patient mother, Julie, who cannot communicate or interact with Nathan in the same way that his late father could. Thanks to Hawkins’ warmth and believability, the film’s mother-son relationship stands as one of its most deeply affecting elements; I can assure you, there won’t be a dry eye in the house by the time it’s through. Just like Butterfield, Hawkins’ eventual romantic connection with Rafe Spall, A Good Year (2006), works in crafting characters that viewers can simply invest in and accept as being true. Additionally, audiences are introduced to an incorrigible and immodest nerd named Luke, played to perfection by a brilliant Jake Davies, Leave to Remain (2013). Through the character of Luke, X+Y also sheds some light on bullying without ever turning to ‘cartoon’ stereotypes. During the training camp, the remarkable Davies is involved in some of the picture’s most honest and heartbreaking moments — a scene involving the famous Monty Python dead parrot gag is truly impactful. After noting Davies’ eye-opening and sometimes intentionally amusing work, it’s clear as to why the other ‘nerds’ would turn on someone like Luke, as he basically represents all the ‘negative’ traits of a developmental disability. Finally, a self-mocking Eddie Marsan, Sherlock Holmes (2009), displays his natural comic timing as troop leader Richard, who treats his nerdy students as though they’re thoroughbreds he is prepping for a race.
Working alongside acclaimed cinematographer Danny Cohen, who earned an Oscar nomination in 2011 for The King’s Speech, much of X+Y was shot on location in Sheffield and in the university grounds at Cambridge with the real-life locations aiding the picture’s docudrama aesthetic, giving the film a naturalistic look. Correspondingly, the scenes shot in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei — showcasing the street life and night markets — enhance the picture’s authenticity and make for a startling contrast between the scenes in Nathan’s Yorkshire hometown. Fortunately, those who find mathematics puzzling or somewhat confusing — such as myself — shouldn’t fret, as X+Y never delves too deeply into its arithmetic, offering only snippets of questions and calculations, using its subject matter to push the heavy-handed story forward rather than dwelling on its calculations.
Glorious, touching and truthful, X+Y could almost be described as Billy Elliot (2000) with Math, however, this tender-hearted coming-of-age drama explores different people at different stages of their lives, all of whom discover certain emotional truths, which they hadn’t recognized before. Celebrating the power of numbers while examining several of life’s overwhelming profundities, X+Y is superbly acted, sensitively handled and features an upbeat ending, warm enough to soften even the hardest of hearts.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
X+Y is released through Pinnacle Films Australia