Directed by Morgan Mathews
Starring Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkings
We are definitely living in the Golden Age of Nerd at the moment. With comic book flicks making money hand over fist and The Big Bang Theory still rating highly, then it was only a matter of time before there was a romantic film based around Maths Olympics. I mean that just writes itself! Fortunately this project comes from a far less cynical place, arising out of director Morgan Mathews previous documentary, Beautiful Young Minds, which looks at a team of kids at the IMO (some of which do rate on the autism spectrum) inspired him to take this fictional approach to the subject.
Having both pattern synaesthesia and autism makes Nathan (Asa Butterfield) special, which can be both a good thing and a challenge. On one side he has a gift with mathematics that few can rival, on the other hand he freaks out when the prawn balls in his takeaway are not a prime number. One thing gives his life meaning, the hope that he will be able to attend the International Mathematics Olympiad. With the help of his tutor (Rafe Spall) and the vast reservoirs of patience possessed by his mother (Sally Hawkins), he might just make it – that is if he can make it through the social interactions required to train with the other teenagers.
X+Y is a gentle movie, lovingly told. Given the themes in play here and the condition of many of its characters, this could be so easily mishandled to produce something that is melodramatic and harrowing. Instead X+Y manages to utilise comedy and a touching story about finding connections with others to convey its message of acceptance and overcoming obstacles. This is in part due to Mathews’ subtle handling of the subject. He gives us a brilliant insight into this brilliant mind, constantly reiterating the theme of his autism and related synaesthesia through wash of repeating lights and patterns, rather than reaching for some naff graphic effect straight from the CSI play-book. This caring and respectful approach, obviously shaped by dealing with actual children in a similar situation, pays off in the long term.
Asa Butterfield (Hugo) does a lot of the heavy lifting in his portrayal as the mathematically gifted but socially awkward Nathan. In what could so easily be a caricature, this young actor pitches his performance perfectly, giving us someone who is believable and real. It is for the most part subtle and nuanced, but has the audience empathising with his confusion at situations rather than playing it for laughs or pathos. Butterfield is able to play a scene against Sally Hawkins (Paddington) and Rafe Spall (Life Of Pi) and stand on equal footing with them. Spall by contrast brings much of the comedy, playing Nathan’s maths tutor, a burned out ex-prodigy. His matter-of -fact acerbic take on life is a thing of joy.
A markedly different subject matter than the usual crop, the result is a genuinely heart-warming film.