x + y 

UK Release Date 13th March 2015
Director Morgan Matthews
Starring Butterfield, Spall, Hawkins
Runtime 111 minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Jo
Reviewed 12th March 2015

Being the mother of a young son struggling a little with school x + y was always going to affect me maybe a tad more than the childless cinema-goer but x + y is a truly delightful cinematic outing regardless of parental status and guaranteed to gently tug at even the most hardened of heartstrings. 

Nathan Ellis is a sensitive child. Diagnosed with borderline autism and synaesthesia from the age of five Nathan likes things in a ‘certain way’, to see certain patterns in ‘a certain order’ for him to be happy. So Nathan is complicated and difficult, not fitting into any boxes, but on the upside he has loving parents that are helping him. Nathan also likes maths, the sense he can make from understanding and solving problems and appears to have the early signs of a gift of some kind. Nathan’s dad is good at keeping him on the track, making him laugh, making him see the lighter side of things; help him try not to overcomplicate things. As his dad says, it's as if Nathan is a wizard and his mum and dad are Muggles, they need to help them understand.

A freak accident means Nathan’s life is changed for ever and he is left with his more emotional and softer mum Sarah (Hawkins) who he feels doesn't understand him or talk his language and Nathan, like a turtle, retreats further into his shell. ‘You’re not clever enough’ Nathan throws in his mum’s face one day which causes her to reach for help. When Nathan’s prodigious maths talent lands him at a secondary school to be taught more advanced maths this help takes the shape of unconventional teacher, MS sufferer and general loser, Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall). Mr Humphreys also competed in the Maths Olympiad, an Olympics for maths and after some years of tutelage this is the position Nathan finds himself in, trying out to be on the team. He is suddenly with a group of young people, mostly male where he isn't the weirdest one in the room - or the cleverest. As one of the other students puts it to Nathan “here you are decidedly average’ and for Nathan what a delicious treat that is. A trip to Taiwan and a meeting with a female student who opens his eyes means Nathan is forced to try new things, broaden his horizons and move on.

Seasoned documentary maker Morgan Matthews first feature is a delight from start to finish. It took me quite by surprise at the LFF and I cried all the way through it. This may make it sound like a wholly unpleasant experience but it wasn’t. It was a cathartic and beautiful experience. 

Asa Butterfield is simply glorious as obtuse, abstract and acroamatic young man Nathan. It’s a role difficult to pitch correctly. Nathan could so easily veer into becoming too nasty, too annoying, too smug, too nervous but Butterfield reigns it all in and delivers a performance that is accomplished and memorable. Beautiful stuff.  

Matthews’ film is about Nathan but the surrounding characters are as engaging and rounded. Rafe Spall is simultaneously tragic and hilarious as down and out teacher Mr Humphreys. The physicality of the role and Spall’s lovely, genial likeability playing against type with acerbic Humphreys makes for a glorious performance. Sally Hawkins is, as expected from a woman of her calibre, agonisingly heartbroken and desperate as totally overwhelmed mum Sarah. We feel her pain in the most nuanced of detail. It’s a performance that isn’t excessive or curtailed but just perfect and the chemistry both with Spall and Butterfield is magical. Must of course mention the inimitable Eddie Marsan in a lighter, more fun role as Richard the beleaguered maths professor who helps push Nathan. 

James Graham's script may be a little saccharine at times and it is definitely playing to the heartstrings but it pulls it off. Matthews directing is assured, thoughtful and intelligent. Must have been all that experience he garnered in My Granny The Escort. In seriousness though he has elicited great performances out of the cast and held together a story that could quite easily have veered off into the completely unbelievable. Matthews also creates some lovely pieces with cinematographer Danny Cohen. Trying to visually represent the inside of someone like Nathan’s brain is an impossible task but with clever use of colours and patterns they have created something interesting and arresting. 

An enthralling, emotional and unusual coming of age story, x + y is a joy.

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