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X + Y

March 10, 2015

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia

X+Y #17

After its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September and then its European one at last October’s BFI London Film Festival, emotional British drama X + Y finally lands in UK cinemas and it’s bound to turn you into a weeping mess with its moving portrayal of a young boy’s struggle to live a “normal” life. However, don’t expect your feelings to be manipulated in typical Hollywood fashion: this is a film that melts your heart in a quiet, subtle and thoroughly genuine way.

The boy at the center of the story is Nathan, played by rising star Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game), whose lack of emotional engagement with other people since tender age, lead the boy’s parents to have him seen by a specialist who diagnoses him within the spectrum of autism, leaning towards Asperger’s syndrome. He’s also affected by a form of aphasia related to the things that mostly grab his vivid curiosity about the world around him: the changes in patterns, colour and light.

The only person able to make an authentic connection with Nathan was his dad who died in a car accident not long after the boy was diagnosed. Nathan was in the vehicle as well and the memory of that tragedy is hard to shake, affecting his state of disconnection from the world even more. Julie, his mom, (Oscar-nominee Sally Hawkins), has raised him by herself with utmost love and care, yet she hasn’t managed to break into his shell and feels utterly powerless about it.

With X + Y, Morgan Matthews directs his first narrative feature film after making documentaries for over ten years and yet the inspiration for this debut came from Beautiful Young Minds, a BAFTA nominated documentary he made in 2007 for the BBC. Following a group of gifted British teenagers competing in the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO), one of the documentary’s subjects was a student with a neurodevelopmental disorder that fosters mathematical genius. Screenwriter James Graham, albeit creating a work of fiction, inevitably borrowed from Matthews’ experience with those kids when crafting the film’s script.

These talented filmmakers don’t tell just a classic story of diversity and the struggle to fit in, typical of coming of age tales. The central relationship in the movie is the one between Nathan and his mom who can’t even try to hold her son’s hands without him withdrawing and she just can’t find a way to connect with him. Hawkins plays this loving mother who hurts in silence with such grace and nuanced vulnerability whilst the promising Butterfield complements her frustration with a subtle and convincing portrayal of his character’s disconnection from others.

X+Y #12

Nathan finds solace in his beloved math, the only thing that helps him make sense of the complicated world around him. Soon his private math tutor, Mr. Humphreys, a grumpy, pot-smoking, against-the-rules teacher who suffers from multiple sclerosis (played with pitch-perfect charm, fun and disillusionment by Rafe Spall), recognizes Nathan’s potential and encourages the boy to apply for the IMO. When Nathan earns a place on the UK National Team, he travels with them to the training camp in Taiwan where for the first time he’s on his own and has to overcome the boundaries of his limited social skills.

On one side the boy faces squad leader Richard (the brilliant Eddie Marsan) who keeps pushing him to speak up instead of always hiding but Nathan’s biggest challenge is interacting with the Chinese counterpart he’s paired with during training, the beautiful Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). The girl makes immediately clear she likes him but Nathan has a long way to go in order to understand how feelings work, though for the first time he’s actually affected by someone’s attention.

X + Y is a deeply moving celebration of what it means to be different and how there’s hope for love to find us no matter how wounded we are, as long as we’re open to it. It’s a showcase of the finest British talent both behind and in front of the camera, beautifully photographed, honest and heartfelt, peppered with a gorgeous soundtrack that includes songs by the wonderful singer/songwriter Keaton Henson, and told with such raw sensibility that will melt even the most cynical hearts.

X + Y is released in UK cinemas on March 13th

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor