FILM REVIEW: X+Y, BBC Films (2014)

x+y tiff.net

By Charles Cook, Contributor.

After developing advanced mathematics ability far beyond his years, a shy, introverted and awkward young boy is set on the path to algebraic greatness at the International Mathematics Olympiad in director Morgan Mathew’s new feature length film, X + Y. The picture follows Nathan, a troubled boy with Asperger’s syndrome, as he struggles with life, love and complex mathematical formulae in a both uplifting and heartbreaking drama. Inspired by an earlier work of Mathew’s, the much lauded 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds that also focused on a group of young people preparing for the real life maths Olympiad, this fictionalised revisit does not disappoint, delivering strongly on both emotional and visual levels.

The complex lead role is handled excellently by rising star Asa Butterfield (who previously played Hugo in Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name), but what elevates X + Y above being just a trivial proposition is how elegantly it integrates a supporting cast of characters into Nathan Ellis’s world. Each of their stories carries its own sadness, just as Nathan’s does, though the script keeps a steady hand and steers the film away from melodramatic waters. The saddest of these stories is reserved for one of Nathan’s peers, a boy named Luke who also has Asperger’s. Unlike the quiet popularity Nathan begins to enjoy, he, as another boy says, “has inherited all of the worst traits – the ones that make you arrogant and obsessive”. Luke’s ultimate alienation from the group showcases the highest tier of estrangement from a wider society that does not understand him and because of that, struggles to accept him. His story is easy to empathise with as it draws on everyday alienations that translate surprisingly well and hence raises the stakes on what could have been just another whimsical coming-of-age flick, transforming it into something much larger and more important. Tackling the huge themes of alienation and disability head on, X + Y manages to come away with something meaningful in an arena where many other films have failed.

As explained by Nathan’s doctor early on in the film, people that suffer from Asperger’s syndrome can have a heightened attraction to colours, patterns and symmetry. As such, the camera in X + Y tries to show us the world though those eyes, creating patterns and shapes from everyday objects and drenching its frames in a glorious melancholic haze of colours. When the plot takes Nathan to a mathematics camp in Taiwan to train for the Olympiad, the camera delights in the urban environment as much as Nathan does, leading to some excellent frames of footage reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation. Whilst his arrival in China signifies Nathan’s further ascent toward a higher plane of intellectual achievement, further challenges lie ahead. Upon arrival he meets a young Chinese girl and fellow Olympiad hopeful named Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), and their quickly blossoming relationship with her leads him to question his certainty that maths is the only important thing in his life.

In a way, X + Y is an inappropriate name for the film as its formula is in fact far more complex. Integrating thoughtfulness and drama whilst differentiating itself as a cut above other recent films of its genre, X + Y is exponentially good.

X+Y is showing in the QFT until March 26th. For listings click here

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