'X + Y': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
This sensitive drama is deeply affecting, and offers a spot-on portrait of autism and the bewitching world of math

Asa Butterfield from 'Hugo' stars with Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall as a teen prodigy competing in the International Mathematical Olympiad

A teenage math prodigy on the autistic spectrum (Hugo's Asa Butterfield) learns to cope with change, intimacy and high-pressure competition at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in the deeply affecting, sensitively handled British drama X + Y. Although a work of fiction, this first feature for documentarian Morgan Matthews is loosely inspired by real-life characters met in the director's earlier doc about Olympiad competitors, Beautiful Young Minds.

Unsurprisingly given it's a movie about math and people obsessed with patterns, the script's internal structure is rigorously symmetrical, perhaps excessively so, but growing general interest in autism and the appealing cast, which includes Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall and Eddie Marsan, should add box-office value on the specialist circuit, particularly on the film's home turf.

Even though the film's end credits contain the standard-issue disclaimer about any similarity to people living or dead, there are substantial parallels between Nathan Ellis (Butterfield), the protagonist here, and Daniel Lightwing, one of the young math whizzes profiled in Beautiful Young Minds who, like Nathan, is on the spectrum and falls in love with a Chinese girl. There are striking similarities elsewhere between other characters in the feature and participants in the doc: echoed lines of dialog and even a snippet or two of recycled footage.

However, the movie works up a much deeper backstory for Nathan and his family, which substantially changes the emphasis and tone. Where Beautiful Young Minds is largely about kids participating in the IMO, some of whom happen to be on the spectrum, X + Y is much more about a particular autistic person who happens to be a gifted mathematician and the people around him. Via the subplot about Nathan's mother, Julie (Hawkins, luminously alive in every frame), it offers a spot-on portrait of the challenges of raising an autistic child, up there with The Black Balloon and Fly Away. Not that it stints on the math. In terms of time spent discussing theorems and equations, the difference between this film and The Theory of Everything, the Stephen Hawking biopic that also played in Toronto this year, is like comparing a Scientific American article and a grade-school textbook.

The first act is especially moving as it tracks how the precocious but poker-faced Nathan (played at age 9 by a physically well cast Edward Baker-Close), is first coaxed into an interest in numbers by his father Michael (Martin McCann, making a strong impression with little time) who has an intuitive rapport with his son that his wife struggles to match. When Michael is killed in a car accident, Julie tries her best to parent Nathan alone, but it's obviously hard raising a child who won't let you touch him, who insists on being served only a prime number of shrimp balls, and who constantly reminds you that you're not as smart as he is.

Julie and Nathan find a father-substitute of sorts in Martin Humphreys (Spall), a math tutor. Martin was once a math prodigy himself who competed in the IMO, but multiple sclerosis and other psychological demons have swerved him away from the career he was expecting. His coaching gets Nathan into the IMO precompetition, which sends Nathan to Taiwan under the care of genially bumptious coach Richard (Marsan).

Spall is so immensely likeable as the foul-mouthed, wry Martin, it's almost possible to overlook the fact the subplot involving his and Julie's nascent romance feels contrived, there to balance out Nathan's own budding entanglement with fellow Olympian Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). Perhaps there was some feeling that there needed to be strongly sympathetic, neurotypical characters to counterpoint Nathan himself, whose shy self-containment and pride are not immediately likeable, although Butterfield's angelic features and very-autistical stillness helps a bit. He himself marks a contrast to the socially inept, intellectually arrogant Olympiad hopeful Luke (Jake Davies, excellent) whom one peer describes, echoing an uncomfortable moment in the original documentary, as representing all the bad bits of autism.

In the end, Matthews' affinity for the subject and empathy for his characters pays rich dividends, while his documentary background shines through in his and DP Danny Cohen's eye for striking visual details, especially in the Taiwanese locations. Cohen often hangs the camera down low or way up high, suggesting an off-center perspective that goes with the protagonist's world view. The use of wistful, sometimes gently humorous, sometimes sad songs credited to Mearl adds a nice touch of hip.

Production companies: A BFI, BBC Films presentation in association with Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Screen Yorkshire, Lipsync Productions of an Origin Pictures, Minnow Films production
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Deng Laoshi, Edward Baker-Close, Percelle Ascott
Director: Morgan Matthews
Screenwriter: James Graham
Producers: Laura Hastings-Smith, David M. Thompson, Ed Rubin
Executive producers: Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Lizzie Francke, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Hugo Heppell, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Richard Bullock
Costume designer: Suzanne Cave
Editor: Peter Lambert
Music: Mearl
Sales: Bankside Films

No rating, 111 minutes