A socially awkward teenage math prodigy finds new confidence and new friendships when he lands a spot on the British squad at the International Mathematics Olympiad.
A low budget British movie about a teenage, autistic maths whizz. This summary, coupled with a mathematical equation as a title (note the plus sign, this is not X&Y!) perhaps explains why this gem of a film has been criminally underserved by cinemas, with the multiplexes showing it for the bare minimum and even some independents giving it the cold shoulder. It deserved better.
Starring a cast of British character actors (step forward Eddie Marsan, Sally Hawkins & Rafe Spall), it is Hugo star Asa Butterfield who is the film’s protagonist, Nathan. Nathan lives with his single mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) and seems to follow all the usual movie tropes of autism – social awkwardness, a reluctance for physical contact, fussy eating habits… we’ve seen all this before in the likes of Oscar winners ‘A Beautiful Mind‘ and ‘Rain Man‘. Nathan has a talent for high-level mathematics and is introduced to former child genius, but now a depressed, MS-suffering teacher, Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall). So begins the journey toward the Maths Olympics (I googled it, it’s a real thing!) in Taiwan, where half the film is set.
The film could very easily fall into genre stereotype, or patronise its characters. That it doesn’t do that is one of its many positives. The scenes in Taiwan, following the British and Chinese maths teams are particularly well done. Director Morgan Matthews had previously made a documentary about the Maths Olympics and it is perhaps because of this that the teams, made up of nerds and troubled kids, are not played for laughs. That isn’t to say there aren’t laughs, but the comic relief comes primarily from the tetchy relationship between GB coach Richard (Eddie Marsan) and Mr Humphreys. The cast are all excellent, with even the supporting roles (Alex Lawther, who we last saw as the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, again puts in an excellent performance as a child with mild autism who bullies those who have a stronger form of the disease).
I have a soft spot for coming-of-age stories, and this film reminded me a lot of ‘The Way, Way Back‘, in terms of a troubled teen being helped along by an adult role model. While it isn’t quite as good as that film, there is a lot to love – a great storyline, nuanced performances from a well-cast group of actors, and a cracking ending that packs an emotional punch (this was the second film in succession that made me cry, the first being ‘Still Alice‘). ‘X+Y‘=Hit!
Review by Richard Mason
Directed By: Morgan Matthews
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang and Alex Lawther