WRITTEN REVIEW – X + Y (2015)
X + Y
Directed by: Morgan Matthews
Written by: James Graham
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Jo Yang, Rafe Spall & Eddie Marsan
Music: Martin Phipps
Release Date: March 13th 2015
Children. What do they want?
Oddly enough, dramatic movies centred around children are a dime a dozen these days. You get your youth-led action or high-concept films (‘Earth to Echo’ & ‘Project Almanac‘) or fairy-tale/fantastical films (‘Bridge to Terabithia‘) but in terms of grounded dramas, those are significantly rarer. But here comes BAFTA award-winner, Morgan Matthews with ‘X + Y‘ which is based on his acclaimed 2007 TV documentary ‘Beautiful Young Minds‘ which followed young mathematical prodigies through the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO).
One of those gifted youths was Daniel Lightwing who is on the autistic spectrum (a mental disorder which can make people socially awkward or find it difficult to communicate with others) and Lightwing’s story has been re-tooled in ‘X + Y‘ with Asa Butterfield (‘Hugo‘ & ‘Ender’s Game‘) as Nathan Ellis. With the creator of the documentary behind the film adaptation, as well as assembling a great British cast then surely things are on track for ‘X + Y‘ to succeed. And while ‘X + Y‘ does adhere to strict formulas (very fitting considering it’s a movie about maths) it does, indeed, succeed in providing a humble but heartfelt take on relationships and love.
At a young age, Nathan Ellis (played by Edward Baker-Close as a child) is diagnosed with autism, which makes him struggle to communicate with others and finds it difficult to fit in, despite finding comfort in the “patterns” of maths. When his father is killed in a rather gruesome car accident, he starts to regress more into his own bubble despite his mother, Julie (Hawkins), trying to support him. But Nathan opens up more to his maths teacher, Humphreys (Spall) and grows up (now played by Butterfield) to become a math’s whiz and he’s eventually entered into the IMO which has him travelling to China and competing with and against similarly gifted, as well as similarly troubled and isolated youths.
Full disclosure here; while I am not on the autistic spectrum (or, at least, I’ve not been diagnosed and have not been seen regarding such mental matters) I do know many people with autism and have worked with autistic youths. So it’s with that frame of reference that I can confidently say that ‘X + Y‘s portrayal of autism, and Asa Butterfield’s performance, is very accurate for the most part. When it comes to writing children in fiction, you must keep in mind that the younger the child is the more brutally honest they will be. And when it comes to people with autism then that is especially true and not everyone with autism will act the same way.
One early scene has Nathan working on a math’s project in his bedroom and when his mother, Julie, asks if she can help, Nathan almost brutally cuts her down by saying “You’re not clever enough”. Nathan’s not trying to put down his mother or be unnecessarily harsh. He’s just presenting the information as he sees it. Another very powerful scene early on has Julie arriving at her husband’s funeral with Nathan and she asks Nathan to hold her hand, to which Nathan refuses and runs off. That scene was not only presenting Nathan’s awkwardness, especially concerning the fact that Nathan was very close to his father who was helping him through his social problems, but to show how difficult it can be to raise an autistic child, particularly for someone like Julie who is an affectionate person and requires her own way of mourning which Nathan is not helping with.
One of the best sub-plots of the movie involves another math’s prodigy competing in the IMO, Luke played by Jake Davies, and how he struggles to fit in because of his abrasive nature. Luke is a social recluse who religious watches Monty Python but when it’s revealed just how much being a part of the IMO means to someone like him…it’s heart-wrenching stuff, to say the least. Director Morgan Matthews’ confidence in portraying the less-desirable traits of autism is key to audience members understanding what it’s like for people to be around those like Nathan and Luke, which is not only important for the narrative but also important in the broader societal context.
But the cast are terrific, pretty much across the board, which is surprisingly especially when you consider that most of it is comprised of actors in their mid to late teens. Asa Butterfield is tremendous as Nathan and despite him playing a very shy individual; he is a very expressive actor so you pick up on a lot of his awkwardness from just his body language and speech patterns. Asa Butterfield hasn’t been in a lot of films, but he’s made a great impression in pretty much everything he’s been in. He made waves in 2008’s ‘The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas‘ despite only being around 10 years old and along with ‘Hugo‘, ‘Ender’s Game‘ and now ‘X + Y‘ he’s proving himself to potentially be the next great movie star. I’m looking forward to seeing him in Tim Burton’s next movie; ‘Peregrine’s Home for Peculiars‘ and along with Logan Lerman (‘The Perks of Being A Wallflower‘ & ‘Fury‘), Butterfield is my pick for the next Spider-Man. Let’s hope those rumours are true.
Rafe Spall plays against-type as Humphreys, a passive aggressive math’s teacher who used to compete in the IMO before he got multiple sclerosis and had to quit (though he’s sure his sardonic attitude had nothing to do with his downfall). Even from his opening scene you’ll know that Humphreys could potentially walk away with the whole movie and he provides a lot of the laughs as well as making a great counter-point to Nathan, who doesn’t get many of his sarcastic comments. Though, the REAL person to walk away from the movie is Sally Hawkins as Julie. Hawkins is quickly becoming one of my favourite female actors and ‘X + Y‘ seems almost tailor-made to fit her skill-set as she’s incredibly likeable and comes across as a very vulnerable person, but with a very strong will. The penultimate scene of the movie with her and Nathan is easily the best scene of the entire movie and it’s pretty much down to her impeccable performance. Special mention must also be given to Edward Baker-Close who is very good as young Nathan. It’s not an easy role for such a young child actor, but it does it very well and here’s hoping we see more of Baker-Close in the near future.
Aside from Eddie Marsan as the entertaining and highly competitive coach of the IMO England Team, most of the cast is comprised of younger actors, including the brilliant aforementioned Jake Davies but there’s also Alex Lawther who impressed last year as the young Alan Turing in ‘The Imitation Game‘ and continues to shine here in an, admittedly, similar role. Let’s hope Lawther doesn’t get typecast as bright, but socially off-beat characters. The two lead young females don’t fare quite as well, though that’s through no fault of the actors. Jo Yang makes her English-language debut as Zhang Mei who is on the Chinese math’s team and becomes Nathan’s central love interest. She’s very endearing and very likeable, but her character does suffer from the fact that she is, first-and-foremost, the love interest.
There’s also Alexa Davies as Rebecca, the only female on the England math’s team and, in the few scenes where she’s the focus, she makes a very strong impact. While Rebecca falls victim to the love-triangle trope as she has romantic feelings for Nathan as well (in a sub-plot that unfortunately goes nowhere) she does get some great sequences and Alexa nails the delivery in what’s probably the most disarmingly funny line in the entire movie. You’ll know it when you hear it.
Incidentally, concerning the love triangle, I don’t know how accurate or biographical ‘X + Y‘ is to the true story of Daniel Lightwing, but if it is accurate then Daniel was/is a total ladies-man as all the main young females in the movie can’t resist his shy, boyish charm. PLAYA!
Anyway, while ‘X + Y‘ does adhere to formula, particularly concerning the love story as well as the endearing, but predictable relationship between Julie and Humphreys, its biggest problem is that when the final maths test arrives, the movie realises it’s only got around 5 minutes left to wrap up and then quickly does so, leaving many of the supporting characters and sub-plots by the wayside in order to reach the credits efficiently. Nathan even starts to overcome many of his social quirks almost instantly and the change doesn’t feel believable because it’s so rushed, especially for someone with autism. It also doesn’t help that Humphreys’ entire character arc and growth is pretty much abandoned around 20 minutes before the end. It genuinely feels like ‘X + Y‘ ran out of money and just decided to wrap up the movie. It’s a disappointing way to end what was, before that point, a very effective movie.
Despite Morgan Matthews being primarily known for his documentary work, he acquits himself very well as a director with some great shot composition (I detect inspiration from Wes Anderson due to some of the symmetrical shot lay-outs) as well as some interesting sequences where the camera finds patterns in every-day objects. Nathan Ellis is enamoured with patterns so using this approach to allow the audience to see the world as Nathan sees it was quite inspired. Aside from that and a few very well handled tracking shots of Nathan and Zhang walking around Chinese markets, the movie does come across like a high-end TV movie. This wasn’t exactly unexpected as this is Morgan Matthews first directorial film that’s not a documentary and ‘X + Y‘ does just enough to justify it being a theatrical release, but its production ambitions aren’t exactly high. Though I can’t remember any of the music. That probably makes me a bad person and trust me, I DO feel bad, but I don’t remember much of a musical presence in the movie.
‘X + Y‘ is a very sweet and at times incredibly emotional humble movie. Its portrayal of its young cast members are mostly brilliant and the more experienced cast members as such Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall and Eddie Marsan play very memorable characters. It’s a small production, but still well directed and its emphasis on the less desirable traits of autism is commendable, although it does adhere to formulaic tropes as well as a very rushed ending which puts a slight damper on the whole experience. But still, ‘X + Y‘ is a great film that I highly recommend, even if you don’t know the difference between an Equilateral or an Isosceles Triangle or can’t do equations worth a damn. I know I can’t and I still enjoyed this movie about maths, but it’s not REALLY about maths.
I give ‘X + Y‘ 4 stars out of 5 or 80% or 0.8 out of 1 etc.
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Posted: 27th Mar 15