Asa Butterfield has long been one of the most promising young actors in Britain, with strong performances in films like ‘Hugo’, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ and most recently ‘Ender’s Game’. Here Butterfield gets the chance to expand his horizons, with an intimate and challenging role as autistic and mathematically gifted Nathan Ellis, a young teenager who gets told he may be able to compete in the International Mathematical Olympiad, but for whom issues both from the past and present are an obstacle to both his personal happiness and that of his put-upon mother, as played wonderfully by Sally Hawkins.
The film is directed by Morgan Matthews, a BAFTA award winning documentarian for whom this marks his first foray out of that realm, though the story is based upon ‘Beautiful Young Minds’, a documentary centred around the aforementioned Olympiad and some budding young mathematicians attempting to make the British team. Matthews is a very good director, ensuring every scene allows for his actors to show off their repertoire and making all their interactions as down to earth and believable as possible. He is in so small part helped by a fantastic performance from Butterfield, who captures his character perfectly, incorporating every behavioural quirk and speech pattern perfectly in an acting performance that is just as reliant on the facial expressions as it is on his line delivery. Rafe Spall makes a wonderful appearance too as Mr Humphreys, a gruff maths teacher who becomes Nathan’s mentor and personal tutor who provides a lot of the comedy of the film and excels in his more emotional scenes too.
‘X+Y’ is a thoughtful, funny and powerful film that deals with important themes like love and loss even while focusing on a mathematics tournament that may seem far away from those things. The humanity of the different children at the contest is there for all to see, despite all their quirks and their obvious maths prowess, they’re all vulnerable and unsure of themselves, even doing something they’re good at, since it stops being a hobby and starts becoming something that’s a lot more pressurised and regimented than they’re used to. Butterfield’s chemistry with those around him brings this out well, and his changing views of the world and those that love him accompany his nuanced performance well. In the end, it’s a film that doesn’t shirk from its darker side as well as insuring that it accompanies it with the required dose of reality, a combination that can be hard to get but that it achieves brilliantly. A quiet and unassuming success.
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