Glasgow Film Festival Review: X + Y

X+Y Review


By Callum Creaney

Director: Morgan Matthews

Writer: James Graham

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins


X+Y is definitely one to try and catch before it’s pushed out of the box office by bigger contenders. With a release date of March 15th, the movie is based on director Morgan Matthews’ experience making award winning documentary Beautiful Young Minds and draws upon real life experiences to tell this heart-warming tale.

The film centres on Nathan (Butterfield), a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome, who studies under the tuition of Mr Humphreys (Spall) with a goal of earning a place in the UK team for the International Mathematics Olympiad. Devoting most of his time to mathematics, Nathan eats, sleeps and breathes the subject until it comes time to leave one unfamiliar world and enter another. As he gets to know his fellow mathletes at a training camp in Taipei, Nathan confronts the realities of social interaction, competition, expectations, friendship, and almost everything in between.

In a commendable approach to an incredibly complicated subject, the film treats the subject of the Nathan’s autism with the upmost respect; refusing to adhere to the stereotypes of the disorder. Showing that not everyone with autism is a genius who loves maths, the film contains two autistic characters, of the sixteen wannabe competitors. Where Nathan is reserved and unassured, compatriot Luke is confident and obsessive. While a far cry from the most extreme of autistic tendencies, the fact that the film deals with both in a range of situations is an admirable attempt not to pigeon-hole an already stigmatised group.

That’s not to say that it’s a perfect film. Nathan’s gradual acceptance of physical intimacy seems to be a convenient rejection of his discomfort with certain social interactions, but is ultimately forgivable given that it’s not overstated. The few remaining clichés have been skilfully adapted to suit the context in an appropriate way. At one stage, tutor Humphreys worsening case of MS threatens to overshadow the plot and take it in a whole other direction, but instead simply adds depth to a powerful character, before the film shifts back to Nathan’s story.

Any attempt to predict the drama of the plot quickly falls short, as superfluous drama has no place in this film. While the depth it goes to in telling the story will leave audiences thinking for days, one of the most charming features of X+Y is that it knows its limits.

The minor stories of the supporting characters are dealt with only so far as they need to be. From Humphreys’ illness, to Julie’s, Nathan’s mother, desire for comfort after the death of her husband seven years before the main action of the film, there’s nothing overdone. This works as fitting to focus back on to Nathan’s own story, but is primarily down to some fantastic performances by the actors involved.

Spall’s performance of the rough-round-the-edges teacher provides much of the film’s comic relief and stands out as an example of why he is perhaps one of the most underrated actors in British film. Sally Hawkins creates a great balance between the pathos of a mother whose relentless devotion to her son continues to go unnoticed, while all the audience can wish for her is a true connection with the consistently distant Nathan. Also noteworthy is Eddie Marsan’s performance as the diligent maths coach of the UK’s Olympiad team.

But what really steals the show is the younger portion of the cast. With much of the main plot taking place at math training camp, the performances of Asa Butterfield, as Nathan, Jo Yang as his Chinese partner and Jake Davies as fellow autistic, Luke, stand out as cases of extraordinary realistic enactments of well written characters. Where it would be incredibly easy to exaggerate his character’s autistic traits, Butterfield manages to make it look incredibly natural – even in conversation with Yang, in an outstanding debut in the movie industry.

The acting alone makes X+Y worth watching, but when mixed with the humbleness of the whole film and a great score alongside it’s hard not to suggest this film as worth watching for a viewer of any age.