X+Y (Morgan Matthews, 2014)
In 2007, documentary filmmaker Morgan Matthews explored the world of autistic maths geniuses in his film, Beautiful Young Minds. Here he followed a select few British students as they trained and competed for a place in the final team at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). With his latest film (and first non-documentary feature) X + Y he melds together various characters and themes from this earlier doco to create a thoroughly affecting fictional piece.
After Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, his father is tragically killed in a car accident, leaving behind Nathan and his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins). Due to his diagnosis, they struggle to connect. Nathan’s passion lies in the area of mathematics and Julie enrols him at the local high school for specialist classes. Here he is taught by former maths prodigy, Martin (Rafe Spall) who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Nathan successfully applies for the IMO training camp in China where he meets fellow competitor Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). Out of his comfort zone, he battles various challenges on the road to mathematical (and potentially romantic) success.
On a basic level, X + Y shares some similarities with the recent Paper Planes. Both films feature a young male protagonist with a deceased parent, are concerned with competition at a world level, and involve a trip to Asia where love awaits. However, X + Y provides further depth, managing to cover a lot of ground in just a small space of time: living with autism, having a child with autism, living with multiple sclerosis, grief, mathematics, bullying, the pressure on Asian students to succeed, young love, second chance at love, self-harm, and the list goes on. Matthews portrays autism truthfully, which is no doubt a result of him spending time with the subjects of his earlier documentary. There is a second autistic character included (clearly modelled specifically on one of his earlier subjects) who serves to show the audience that high functioning autistics are not all the same. The film emphasises the positives of being different, while also acknowledging the difficulties.
Asa Butterfield has already established his merits as a young actor in The Boy in Striped Pyjamas and Hugo, and in his adolescent years he continues to shine. Watch out Kodi Smit-McPhee because Asa has it all over you. Here he has his character down to a tee and is surely destined for a big future. Sally Hawkins whole-heartedly embodies her role of a mother trying desperately to connect to her child and is simply divine. This isn’t surprising given her track record, and had this film been out at a different time of year, she may well have received a few award nods. Rafe Spall further beefs up an impressive cast list in easily one of his best performances to date. His monologue at an MS support group is a tear-jerker.
In his first screenplay, James Graham has done a wonderful job, though having now watched Beautiful Young Minds I can see that some patches of dialogue have been copied almost directly, so it’s difficult to say how much credit he should be awarded. Nevertheless, he and Matthews have succeeded in creating a beautiful film which doesn’t go the obvious route and which consistently purges emotion upon emotion from its audience. The Maths included in X + Y will be incomprehensible to most viewers, but its cinematic beauty is crystal clear.