Published Sep 15, 2014It appears as if Asa Butterfield didn't experience any real growing pains between his star-studded arrival as the titular hero in Martin Scorsese's Hugo and his role as math prodigy Nathan in Morgan Matthews' new X+Y. Butterfield brings a sense of grace and maturity to a role that finds him acting as a young boy with few friends, few family members and too many troubles in this story about a British whiz kid struggling with his pubescent emotions and place on the autism spectrum. If only the same could be said for the film itself.
When X+Y starts, we are witness to a horrible car crash that takes the life of Nathan's father, the sole person who can connect with him. His mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins), struggles to relate to her son on a daily basis. The only other person who comes close to understanding him is his after-school math teacher, Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a previous prodigy himself who never quite lived up to his potential due to his multiple sclerosis.
When Nathan is entered as part of Great Britain's team in the International Mathematics Olympiad, he must step out of his comfort zone by connecting with fellow teenagers (some of whom have the same struggles he has), travel to far off locations (Taipei, where the initial training camp for the upcoming competition is being held) and deal with the long-running personal anxieties he's harboured since his father's death. It's there that he meets Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) a gifted and beautiful girl who is forced into the competition by her strict and unruly uncle, who just so happens to be the head coach of the host team.
Over a mutual love of math and deep-fried prawns, young love blossoms between the two teenage mathematicians, even though both sides and rational thinking plan to tear them apart.
It's a sentimental and special love story, one that is only bolstered by the powerful and poignant performances from each of the film's players. But the strengths of X+Y are also its weaknesses, as oversentimentality and sappiness ultimately detract from the film's more serious moments.
Perhaps most troubling is the portrayal of Luke (expertly played by Jake Davies). The only other one openly identified in their group as living with some form of autism, Luke is consistently ridiculed by his fellow mathletes for what appears to be a brash, over-analytical and oversensitive demeanour. After constant abjection, one scene shows Nathan finding Luke bleeding in the bathroom after some serious self-harm. Not that Nathan (and seemingly, the audience) is meant to dwell on it —he soon goes back to (literally) trying to find an equation for love.
It's a strange segue in a film that seems somewhat focused on the unfair treatment of those that seem different from society. Frankly, it's these mixed messages that ultimately detract from the viewing experiences of Matthews' feature-film debut, a sad reality for someone who has been regarded as such a talented documentary filmmaker. The harsh ideas presented on love and life ultimately don't add up, making X+Y's message as confusing as the math problems its stars face. (Origin Pictures)