Veteran documentary director Morgan Matthews + an outstanding British cast on top form = a hilarious and heartfelt examination of the human condition, and insight to what it truly means to be an outcast in a world dependant on connection.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Review by Corey Hogan
From first-time feature film director Morgan Matthews comes X+Y, inspired by his similarly themed 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds, following teenage maths whiz Nathan (Asa Butterfield) as he is coached by his turbulent mentor Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall) to compete against thousands of contenders, and earn a spot on the UK team at the International Mathematics Olympiad. Unfortunately Nathan suffers from autism, while Humphreys has been crippled by multiple sclerosis, making it difficult for each of them to connect, and form relationships with those around them, but leading to an unconventional bond between teacher and student. Nathan’s mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) forever struggles to understand her son, made all the more trying since her husband’s death in a tragic accident. As Nathan flies solo to Taipei for the championship, all three must leave their comfort zones, and embrace their underdeveloped social sides in this humorous and profoundly affecting British drama.
Coincidentally, X+Y’s story plays out akin to recent Australian film Paper Planes – socially awkward boy raised by a single parent uses his special skills to enter a national competition held in Asia and learns to come out of his shell along the way – but this is aimed at an older and broader demographic, and is much smarter, funnier, emotionally richer and wholly satisfying for it. Rather than focusing solely on the singular disability of its young lead, the film cleverly broadens its horizons as an ensemble piece, allowing each character the chance to be fleshed out and explored in great detail. Nothing feels rushed here; Matthews clearly wants us to get to know and eventually love these misfits all seeking human connection in their own complex way at an easy to breathe pace. We jump back and forth between the present and Nathan’s early life with his father before his untimely death, giving us a strong sense of the weight he and his mother carry in the isolated world from each other they now face.
Asa Butterfield’s performance is thankfully less Ender’s Game and more Hugo, a return to quiet but revelatory form as the numeral-apt Nathan, perfectly capturing the challenging sociality that pairs with autism; from the inability to make physical contact, to the frustrating lack of prime numbers in his food. Having known a few autistic people in my life, I can safely vouch for Butterfield’s beautiful encompassment of the complication and grievance such a socially adverse condition can bring. Rafe Spall’s limping lecturer is tragically comic, dealing with his disease in a delightfully self-deprecating manner, and proving himself capable of a sustained balance between drama and comedy. Happy-Go-Lucky pair Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan (as leader of the UK mathematics team in Taipei) reunite, with Hawkins turning in another exquisite performance gathering all our affection as the struggling widowed mother. Special mention must also be made of Martin McCann as Nathan’s fellow socially inept competitor Michael, who in just a handful of scenes transitions from incredibly unlikeable to immensely sympathetic, another soul just as lost in the world as Nathan.
That said, the film is not quite flawless. Allowing each character so much time to develop leads the film to meander at points , and raises the question of whether a few segments could be cut down, particularly the long-winded second act in Taiwan that becomes a little distracted with Chinese culture instead of focusing on the story. The ending too is wrapped up awfully neatly to the point of feeling unrealistic, and a tad out of character, though it is done with so much emotional gusto that it is unlikely you’ll mind too much. The brilliant performances, and level of raw emotion of display forgive any narrative shortcomings or familiar story beats that do nothing to undermine the sensitive topics explored; X+Y is an incredibly entertaining bridge to understanding the fragile minds on the outskirts of society.
X+Y is in Australian cinemas as of Thursday April 9th
Images courtesy of Pinnacle Films