X + Y

Ron Swanson thinks that even if ‘X + Y ≠ £££’, you should still see this film.


In 2007, Morgan Matthews made a documentary called Beautiful Young Minds, a film about a child with autism who attempted to qualify for the International Mathematics Olympiad. Now, eight years later, Matthews’ first feature, X+Y, is a fictional retelling of that story, released in cinemas across the UK and Ireland today. Sadly, it’s highly probable that X+Y has passed most people by, already, meaning it will have an extremely short shelf-life.

I worry about films like X+Y going forward. It’s getting more and more difficult for small, intimate and personal films to find a home now in cinemas that are becoming more and more risk-averse and homogenous. Netflix and Amazon Prime don’t release figures on how successful their download or streaming services are for public consumption, but my suspicion is that those films can’t make enough money via Video on Demand to remain a viable business proposition. We know that physical media is slowly dying, so where can a film like X+Y find an audience? And are audiences even looking for films like this?

Sequels, blockbusters and ‘awards’ titles dominate cinema lineups, news cycles and media advertising because the consensus view is that they are easy to sell. A customer knows, roughly, what they’re going to get from Transformers 5, and the studio can market directly to that core audience. The same thing applies for Theory of Everything or Birdman which fit, respectively into the pigeonholes labelled “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan”. When a film like X+Y comes along, there’s no track record of success to latch onto, nor a ready-made audience who will rapturously respond to a film about an autistic kid trying to qualify for an international maths tournament.

And, maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe audiences & cinemas haven’t got less progressive; it’s just that there are too many films competing against each other and everything else you could be spending your twin currencies of cash money and precious free time on. If that’s the case then you would have to assume that, in most cases, films like this are going to reach fewer and fewer people.

So, films like this need advocates, and I’m going to try and convince you of why X+Y is worth both your time and money.

I saw around 40 films at last year’s London Film Festival. I saw innovative, brilliant, devastating and staggeringly ambitious films. I certainly saw better films than X+Y, but I didn’t see one that moved me quite as much. It’s a film which may sound as if it would lose little by being seen on a small screen, but the visuals, particularly during the films’ second act, are so beautiful that they deserve to be seen in a cinema. There’s also a huge benefit in sharing some of the catharsis that the film provides with an audience of like-minded souls. When I saw the film, the stranger on either side of me and my viewing companion were as emotional (teary) as I was (my viewing companion has a heart of stone, and restricted herself to a sad smile).

It’s a beautifully judged and accomplished drama, with a trio of fabulous performances by Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins and (particularly) Asa Butterfield, which doesn’t attempt to make any of its characters a symbol of their circumstance, whether it’s the autistic maths genius Nathan (Butterfield), his single mum (Hawkins) or the desperately sad tutor (Spall) she hires, struggling to come to terms with his own illness. This is a film that strikes a hopeful note, one that dares to suggest that the bigger victories in most lives are the small moments in which we understand ourselves, and the people that we love completely. The path towards that understanding here is a difficult, but beautiful one.

Nathan’s path to qualify for the IMO sees him have to travel far from his comfort zone, and his growth while under pressure from several new things at once is beautifully, astutely portrayed by Butterfield. As part of the selection process, he joins a squad of hopeful mathematicians on a trip to Taipei, where he’s away from home for the first time. While there, he finds himself surrounded by people he doesn’t know; by girls who seem to like him; and the pressure of competing to achieve the one thing he wants the most.


While Butterfield delicately handles the changes that Nathan undergoes, Hawkins and Spall are as good as they’ve ever been. Their interactions with Nathan are delightful, each portraying a believable and likable influence on his life, while occasionally showing the difficulties each is going through. Those difficulties come through more strongly when they are on their own; in quiet moments the emotion comes through. Crucially, the two have chemistry together, and Hawkins’ naturally unselfish screen presence allows Spall’s character to grow in the scenes they share. The scene where he allows himself to be vulnerable in her presence (after years of using humour as a defence mechanism) is heart-wrenching.

It’s a super debut from Matthews, who’s handling of the tone throughout is as flawless as his film is beautiful. In wrenching excellent performance from his three leads, and a strong supporting cast that includes Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Alex Lawther and, particularly, Jake Davies as one of Nathan’s more troubled potential teammates, he proves himself to be an actor’s director, in addition to one that can tell a simple, sweet story with enough skill to surprise an audience.

Perhaps X+Y will not make much of an impression at the box-office. But you should give it the chance to make as much of an impression on you as it did on me.

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