Saturday 9 September 2017

From the archive: "X+Y"

The big blue eyes of the actor Asa Butterfield have often been used to simplify complex matters for younger audiences. In both 2008’s The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas and 2011’s Hugo, those peepers became a recurring focal point for the camera, allowing us to see reflected in them first the horrors of the Holocaust, then the wonders of silent cinema. In X+Y, a winning and impressive feature debut from erstwhile documentarist Morgan Matthews, the subject is autism: Butterfield’s playing Nathan, a Sheffield lad headed to Taiwan, site of a maths training camp ahead of the International Maths Olympiad. Among these numbercrunchers – of which The Imitation Game’s Alex Lawther is the most assured, and Jake Davies’ Luke a poignantly stiff standout – Nathan is, as a fellow traveller notes, “neither the weirdest, nor the best mathematician”, but “painfully average”. This once, the outcast fits in. 

In truth, plot is only half the story here; more striking is how Matthews’ camera comes out in absolute sympathy with its protagonist. Staying close to Nathan where possible – maintaining a documentarist’s instincts, perhaps – allows X+Y to suggest how those with autism approach the world, in ways that succeed in being both free from condescension and quietly, appreciably cinematic. Quartered slices of toast and an exam room set up with perfectly aligned desks get us caught up in Nathan’s quest for order, before such easy symmetries start to be tested with the move eastwards into less squarely predictable territory.

At every stage, the actors approach this venture in exactly the right spirit: in meshing, they form the support network the film (and its lead character) needs. Butterfield, in his most impressive screen appearance yet, has clearly done his homework, while Rafe Spall deftly conjures something cherishable – and often hilarious – out of a characterisation with several possible pitfalls: the shambling mentor juggling a brilliant mind with a MS-stricken body. Eddie Marsan does his usual swell job with a handful of scenes as the mathletes’ beardy, chivvying manager, but it’s fellow Mike Leigh graduate Sally Hawkins, as Nathan’s mum, who makes the biggest impression here. Two moments, in particular, stay with you: one at the airport, where she anticipates a farewell hug her haphephobic son can’t think to deliver – Matthews gets knockout effects from his hero’s emotional reticence – and another in the final reel, attempting to explain the concept of love in terms her boy might understand. 

This dream team assembled, Matthews knows he doesn’t have to force anything; instead, he finds ways to move both film and Nathan forward without recourse to the usual lazy, careworn mechanisms. He hones in on formative moments, learning experiences: Nathan’s tentative first steps to the blackboard, say, or his growing friendship with one of his hosts’ daughters (debutant Jo Yang, smashing), one of a number of little arithmetics that add up to a surprisingly potent and affecting whole. Rare is the British feature that champions intelligence in any form; rarer still the crowdpleaser with heart and a brain.

(MovieMail, March 2015)

X+Y screens on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.

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