X + Y

April 11, 2015
Asa Butterfield in 'X + Y' (2014)
Asa Butterfield in 'X + Y' (2014)

You’ve probably seen him in Hugo (2011), Martin Scorsese’s sole foray into the ‘young adult’ genre. Asa Butterfield is now 17, and much taller, although this doesn’t mean he has escaped the frail and sensitive roles. In Morgan Matthews’s X + Y, Butterfield plays the second disturbed child to be seen at the movies this week. Unlike the manic, dangerous Steve in Mommy, Nathan Ellis has a brand of autism that renders him painfully introverted. His compensation is a prodigious ability for mathematics.

Like Mommy, this film begins with a car crash, but the consequences are far more traumatic, as Nathan loses his father (Martin McCann) – the only human being who has found a way into his private world. From childhood to the teenage years he is raised by his mum, Julie (Sally Hawkins), who struggles to win his affection. Nathan, who cannot bear to be touched, treats his mother in ways that seem callous and insensitive. At one stage he tells her she simply isn’t smart enough. Meanwhile, his obsession with mathematics leads him to the point of irrational behaviour, insisting that the items on his dinner plate should always be a prime number.

As maths is the only thing Nathan cares about, Julie obtains specialised tuition in the form of Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a disaffected teacher who was once a maths whiz himself. Today he is a lowly high school mathematics instructor, in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. Depressed by the mess he has made of his life and the creeping paralysis that is his future, Mr. Humphreys has no friends and little interest in his work. As one misfit with another, he bonds with Nathan, encouraging him to apply for the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO).

This is familiar territory for director, Morgan Matthews, who made a documentary on the IMO in 2007, called Beautiful Young Minds. In the course of that film he met the prototypes for the characters in X + Y, including a group of youthful maths nerds, many of them with forms of autism.

Being selected for the British team means that Nathan has to travel to a training camp in Taiwan with a squad of equally eccentric peers. The leading personalities soon distinguish themselves, from the urbane Isaac (Alex Lawther), to the abrasive Luke (Jake Davies), a classic case of Asperger’s syndrome.

In Taipei the British team are paired with their counterparts from the Chinese team. Nathan finds himself matched with a pretty girl called Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), who speaks good English. Nathan, for his part, has begun to acquire Mandarin, with his usual mathematical proficiency.

The initial drama centres on the competition to make the British team, as the training squad is ruthlessly narrowed down. A second storyline concerns the developing relationship between Nathan and Zhang Mei. She is obviously attracted to him, but since the death of his father he has never shown any capacity to relate emotionally to other people. The first twinges of feeling send him scurrying to the internet to see if there is a mathematical formula for love.

The story concludes in Cambridge, where the Olympiad will be held. Despite the theatrical trimmings it turns out to be a glorified exam. For Nathan the pressure to succeed is in conflict with his developing feelings for Zhang Mei. Could there be something in life more important than mathematics? Can love break through a personality devoted almost exclusively to formulae and algorithms?

There are many moments when the story teeters on the edge of ‘heart-warming’, but James Graham’s script has enough of an edge to retain our sympathies. Even when the characters begin to feel a little mawkish there is a sharpness and humour that keeps the narrative on track.

Matthews has given us a fast-paced coming-of-age tale that treads lightly in the mud of sentimentality.

The film’s two strongest points are probably Butterfield’s performance in the lead role, and the emphasis on mathematics, which takes on a competitive fervour usually associated with sport. X + Y will be a reassuring movie for all teenagers who prefer to spend time in the library rather than the sports field, offering hope for everyone who gets labelled a weirdo, nerd or misfit. It shows us that the intellect has its own brand of heroism.

X + Y
Directed by Morgan Matthews
Written by James Graham
Starring Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Alex Lawther, Jake Davies,
Martin McCann
UK, rated M, 111 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 11th April, 2015.