By Emma Silverthorn @HouseOf_Gazelle
Who knew a film about maths could be so entertaining? Inspired by his 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds director Morgan Matthews and writer James Graham’s X + Y is a very funny, sweet yet unsentimental drama centred on the surprisingly fascinating, (and hardcore), world of a Mathematics Olympiad.
As “geek-cool” continues to spread X + Y is a bracingly realistic portrait of what it’s genuinely like to be on the outside. Asa Butterfiled is spot on as mildly autistic maths genius Nathan. Nathan is not just socially awkward; a mode of being which in line with the trendy geek phenomenon has itself become hip, but socially terrified. As much as I enjoy these women’s work, this is not the cute experience of social awkwardness of say Lena Dunham in Girls or Miranda July in most of her projects, this is self-consciousness and introversion at it’s most painful extreme.
Nathan’s struggle, along with a family tragedy that falls in the early part of the film, could make for an interesting but rather depressing watch however a brilliant performance from Nathan’s eccentric and rebellious maths tutor Humphreys (Rafe Spall) lifts the film. Sally Hawkins as Nathan’s understandably strained and lonely mother is equally brilliant and the dynamics between the trio are touching and complex.
Nathan’s love of maths and his extra-curricular study with Humphrey’s lands him a place at an elite maths training camp in China which proffers some interesting cultural clashes. Positively the camp offers an inspiriting shake up of Nathan’s self-imposed world of confinement and order. And in this environment Nathan’s intelligence has the potential to elevate rather than ostracize him socially. However, as soon becomes evident, group politics and popularity contests exist everywhere including within the world of the fringe intellectual minority. And it is at camp that Nathan confronts a dark alternative version of his own emotional difficulties in the form of respective sufferer Luke (Jake Davies). Luke’s failed attempt of a John Cleese joke is heartbreaking to watch.
The tagline for the film ‘Is there a formula for love?’ might suggest trite territory but with this cast and crew it never strays into that. The emotion feels real never maudlin here. One of my favourites films of the year so far.