Morgan Matthews’ debut feature X+Y adds up to more than a formulaic heart-warming Brit indie film. That’s because he avoids the obvious clichés and keeps a focus on the relationships between the main characters which are so brilliantly and sensitively observed by the three lead actors.
It’s the story of Nathan, a teenager who struggles with human relationships, a result of his autistic tendencies, or perhaps from witnessing the shocking accident that changed his life. The only thing that makes sense to him is numbers, and his only objective is to travel to Taiwan to take part in a maths competition with other young prodigies from around the world. Used to being the only ‘weird one’, there he meets other misfits like himself. Taiwan is also great place for cinematographer Danny Cohen to play around with the kind of repeating patterns that fill Nathan’s brain.
Nathan starts learning to live with his condition, as does his maths mentor, Rafe Spall’s Mr Humphreys, and his mother Julie, played by Sally Hawkins. Bad luck doesn’t have a place in Nathan’s logic, but they’ve all had more than their fair share, and between them they find their way to happiness through recognising what really matters in their lives.
It’s saved from being overly sentimental or sugary, though, by Asa Butterfield’s convincing performance as a remote and sometimes even callous son, and by the humour generated from Rafe Spall’s sardonic, self-deprecating and cynical teacher, his imperfections a counterpoint to Nathan’s perfect father. Sally Hawkins’ Julie barely conceals the pain behind her nervy desperation to find a way through to her son’s emotions. Watch out for the scene where she attempts to explain love to a confused Nathan in the language of maths, involving added value, subtraction and a few equations.
It’s a charming and uplifting film about people who are different not just trying to fit into the world, but making the world fit them.