X + Y but no ZZZs in heartfelt teen tale
Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Jo Yang, Eddie Marsan, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Percelle Ascott, Orion Lee. Director: Morgan Matthews.
Released: March 13
Film producers, who gauge success in pounds and dollars, know only too well that there is no simple, rigorous formula for guaranteed box office returns.
The 1995 action adventure Cutthroat Island and the 2003 romp Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl share similar creative DNA: swashbuckling pirates + water-logged action sequences + uproarious comedy.
However, the former sank in spectacular fashion and is widely considered one of the biggest flops in cinema history, while the latter spawned a ship-shape franchise that has grossed more than $3.5bn... and counting.
X+Y is a bittersweet drama, which has been engineered to a predictable formula: misunderstood genius + neurodevelopmental disorder + touching romance = triumph against adversity.
Morgan Matthews’ uplifting feature rests heavily on 17-year-old lead actor Asa Butterfield.
He plays Nathan, an autistic savant teenager, who struggles to connect emotionally with people around him including his caring mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins).
Haunted by memories of his father (Martin McCann), the one person who nurtured Nathan’s “special powers”, the teenager seeks comfort in mathematics.
Unconventional teacher Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall) suggests that Nathan should apply for the International Mathematics Olympiad hosted at Trinity College, Cambridge.
In order to make the cut, Nathan must travel with other candidates to Taiwan for a training camp, far from familiar surroundings and home comforts.
In this alien environment, Nathan remains distant from fellow competitors including Luke (Jake Davies), Isaac (Alex Lawther), Rebecca (Alexa Davies) and Ben (Percelle Ascott), under the watchful eye of team leader Richard (Eddie Marsan).
“Here you are neither weird nor the best mathematician,” Rebecca tenderly informs him. “You are painstakingly average.”
Unexpectedly, Nathan experiences powerful feelings for Chinese competitor, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), niece of team leader Deng Laoshi (Orion Lee), that defy logical explanation.
The lad must compute the joy of first love without his mother or Mr Humphreys to catch him when he falls.
Inspired by a documentary, X+Y ventures from suburban England to bustling Taipei in search of answers about the human condition. Butterfield delivers a convincing and moving portrayal of a beautiful mind, who cannot process love or affection, and always speaks with unflinching honesty.
Thus, when Mr Humphreys, who dulls the pain of multiple sclerosis with marijuana and alcohol, tells his protege not to worry about following in his footsteps at the Olympiad – “Whether you get in the team or not, you’re going to do amazing things in the future” the response is painful and swift: “You didn’t”.
Spall channels Michael Caine’s boozy tutor from Educating Rita, replete with wry one-liners, while Hawkins provides excellent support, reaching out to her boy only for him to recoil at her touch.
Star rating: 7/10