X+Y equals a sweet coming-of-age effort about a child prodigy who finds solace in numbers after being diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
Many equations are at work in X+Y, and not just the part of one that forms the film's pithy title. Mathematics features prominently throughout the movie, as a child prodigy finds solace in numbers after being diagnosed on the autism spectrum, then attends maths camp and strives to participate in the International Mathematical Olympiad.
Again, that's not all, with bigger, broader calculations at work throughout the feature. Indeed, the end product is simply one giant sum of clear-cut components. Take a true tale, add a director who has previously made the story into a documentary, plus the standard outsider-overcomes-adversity themes. Multiply the heartwarming emotions already swelling with a dash of family tragedy, a teacher looking for meaning and a teenage romance.
The result is filmmaker Morgan Matthews' fictionalised account of his 2007 TV effort Beautiful Young Minds, as well as his fiction film debut. There's no mistaking the tender mood he's not only attempting to conjure but succeeds in bathing the feature in from start to finish. There's just no mistaking the obvious formula either, even given the movie's real-life basis.
After the death of his father (Martin McCann), Nathan (played by Edward Baker-Close as a 10-year-old, and Asa Butterfield as he ages) struggles to connect to his well-meaning mother (Sally Hawkins). Instead, he escapes into his love of maths, warming to a local teacher, Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall), during private lessons. Their shared affinity for advanced arithmetic sparks dreams of competing at the highest level, even more so when Nathan is selected to train in Taipei to hone his skills. There, he meets fellow numbers wiz Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a friendship growing alongside the usually awkward Nathan's own confidence.
What makes X+Y amble by isn't the narrative that would shout its message of acceptance from the rooftops if it could've found a way to make that seem even remotely plausible, but the cast. The film may lack subtlety in most areas, especially dialogue; however, it finds nuance in the work of Butterfield, Hawkins and Spall. All have played their roles before — the lonely boy looking for a place to belong, the caring woman striving to make the best of a complicated situation, and loveable but troubled companion — yet they never let that flavour their performances. Others who come into their orbit, including Eddie Marsan as Humphreys' own maths teacher, offer similarly perceptive portrayals.
Elsewhere, it's a sweet affair, both in the way the film feels and looks. On one hand, that means huge helpings of syrup in the screenplay, more so as it reaches its predictable conclusion. On the other hand, the film's frames are often saturated in colour, a stylistic flourish actually — and surprisingly — also grounded in the script. Alas, though such a great visual touch shows a willingness to do more than paint by numbers, as does a brief but breezed-over flirtation with a darker subplot, such thinking outside the box is all too fleeting.
The final equation: X+Y equals a nicely acted and ultimately conventional coming-of-age effort, with 111 minutes of running time as its proof.