X+Y tells the coming of age story of young maths prodigy Nathan (Asa Butterfield). Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at a young age, Nathan struggles to make sense of the world around him, let alone make peace with the aftershock of the car accident that killed his father. Under the tutelage of sardonic teacher Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall), Nathan’s flair for mathematics finds him selected to participate in the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO), the resulting trip to Taiwan landing Nathan hundreds of miles from his comfort zone, his maudlin routine disrupted by a potential love interest in the form of Jo Yang’s Zhang, as well as the fiercely competitive environment in which he finds himself.”
With a background in television documentary, X+Y marks director Morgan Matthews first venture into drama. It takes its cues from his own film Beautiful Young Minds, which tracked the progress of a group of British youths in the 2006 IMO, many of whom were on the autistic spectrum. X+Y is a well-researched and fairly-cohesive portrait of how Nathan’s condition affects his ability to convey and understand the complexities and contradictions of human emotion. Grounding the early stages of Nathan’s story in a British suburban setting, much of the film is lumbered with a drab aesthetic similar to TV drama, yet Danny Cohen impressively juxtaposes these with the neon sprawl of Taiwan, the expansion of the visual palette mirroring Nathan’s own personal growth.
Awkward and long-limbed, Butterfield has come a long way from Hugo Cabret, yet inhabits Nathan with a humanity that nimbly carries the film, the actor’s bug-eyes betraying Nathan’s difficulty with self expression. Following Nathan’s departure for Taiwan, James Graham’s measured screenplay finds time to develop the supporting players as three-dimensional characters in their own right. As Nathan’s mother, Sally Hawkins expertly conveys the palpable difficulty in raising a son who may never be able to return her love. While she’s as good as ever, it’s Spall that emerges as the film’s true MVP. As Nathan’s supposed mentor, he balances his previously-displayed comedic flair with a core vulnerability, providing an unexpected emotional one-two punch as Nathan’s success causes him to reflect on his own wasted potential.
While it’s impressively played and evidently well-researched, X+Y‘s earnest nature occasionally deters from its other successes. Graham’s screenplay does a fine job of establishing the strained relationship between Nathan and Julie, and the film’s gentle optimism never spills over into sentimental overkill. However, the story’s integration of other cinematic tropes are somewhat less successful. Intermittent flashbacks help to flesh out Nathan’s relationship with his father (Martin McCann) that, while necessary, are relied upon too heavily, their rote execution detracting from the otherwise grounded nature of the storytelling. The monotonous acoustic soundtrack too, serves to do little more than underline dramatic beats, with little differentiation throughout. The third act, while upping the stakes, again, thankfully resists a dip into melodrama, instead drawing the story back to the core relationship between a boy and his mother, their closing conversation ending Matthews’ film on a touching note. X+Y may not quite finish top of the class, but thanks to fine performances and a measured depiction of autism, displays evident potential.