Director: Morgan Matthews
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ralf Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsden, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davis, Alex Lawther
Written by: James Graham
Running Time: 111 mins
Release date: 13th March 2015
Back in 2007, documentary film maker Morgan Matthews made a film about the International Mathematics Olympiad (yes, there is such a thing). Now he returns to the subject for his feature debut but uses it only as a background to a bitter-sweet comedy drama about Autism and how we all have a little autism in us.
Nathan has been diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum. After tragedy stuck his life, mother Julie discovers his incredible gift for maths and so sets him up with a personal tutor, Mr Humphreys. A former maths genius himself, Humphreys, a rebel, suffers from MS. So impressed with Nathan’s abilities, he enters him into the British team of the forthcoming International Mathematics Olympiad. Having survived the first round, Nathan has to go to Thailand in order to secure a place in the final team. There he meets Zhang Mei, who is about to change his life.
It would have been very easy for director Matthews and writer James Graham to go down the route of showing Autism in an exploitative manner, meaning overcooking what is, essentially, something that sometimes doesn’t appear as obvious. Nathan is quiet, he is distant, doesn’t understand sarcasm, takes everything literally and dislikes physical contact. Yet, as he says at the beginning, his quietness towards other can sometimes make him seem aloof. In the eyes of those around him, Nathan seems quite, well, normal.
In fact, Matthews, Graham and the incredibly talented cast have done something rather special. Instead of heading down the “Rain Man” school of Autism, they have produced a film in which virtually every character seems to have Autistic traits.
Nathan’s mother, for example, is quiet, lacking in confidence and finds connecting with others difficult. Mt Humphreys is similar, although we never know the truth about his character, as he keeps so much hidden away. Then there’s Richard, leader of the Maths training camp. A larger-than-life man who you’d probably find running walking excursions in the Peak District. Everything is in the right place at the right time.
Finally there’s the fellow candidates. All maths geniuses, all with their own little foibles, apart from Luke, an opinionated young man who shows all the signs of being Autistic and having the rest of the group calling him weird. Yet Nathan doesn’t seem weird at all. In fact his growing relationship with rival contestant Zhang Mei somehow manages to catch you off guard. Yet it’s incredibly touching and heart warming.
The plot is very much a join-the-dots story. You know where it’s going and how it will end, yet it’s the strength of the performances that pulls you into this delightful movie. You can help but like everyone. And I mean everyone. Asa Butterfield is magnificent as Nathan. A well-mannered, controlled performance, he captures confusion of Nathan as he becomes the small fish in the big city, yet never overplays his part, keeping it very levelled and richly detailed.
Sally Hawkins, last seen as Mrs Brown in Paddington, is always a delight and here is no exception. You feel her pain as she can never get close to her son, yet longs for someone to talk to, someone to hold. Eddie Marsden is hilarious as the controlling Richard, looking like he has stepped out of a Mike Leigh production and Ralf Spall steals the film as the rebellious Mr Humphreys, a man with his own demons and having to cope with the illness that is striking his body.
X + Y is one of those films that comes along and, without the support or promotion, will disappear without a trace, only to be discovered late night on TV. Don’t let that happen. This is a film that demands you attend it in the cinema, laugh, cry and be utterly charmed by and then tell everyone you meet to see this terrific comedy drama. Don’t let it escape you. Trust me, you will fall in love with it.