Starring: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins
Nathan (Butterfield) is a socially awkward teenager whose sole comfort in life after the tragic death of his father comes from numbers. With his superior ability at maths, Nathan is chosen to represent Great Britain at the International Mathematic Olympiad and at their training camp in Taipei learns some valuable life lessons, including the one thing for which there is no exact formula; love.
I would always argue that no matter what clichés and predictable narrative tropes you throw at characters in films, as long as you genuinely care for them then that is the most important thing. Well X+Y certainly contains its fair share of predictable developments and clichés (though ultimately: what film doesn’t?) but yet it contains characters to genuinely care about and as far as bittersweet heart-warming comedy-dramas go, it is most certainly a superior addition to most of the cynical and fluffy drivel that overpopulates the genre. All involved in X+Y from cast to crew manage to tread that very fine line away from being over schmaltzy and saccharine to make it a genuinely engaging and emotionally involving drama from start to finish. The genuine heart and passion, as well as respect for its subject matter, that it is shown by all involved in X+Y reflects very clearly when watching. It may follow a clear and unoriginal narrative pattern at times, but because of the deeply respectful script and incredible performances X+Y is an excellent drama.
Asa Butterfield once again impresses in yet another complex leading role; though there are very specific elements of Nathan’s condition, there are also elements that are very relatable to anyone who has felt like the outsider and has struggled to connect with or understand the world around them. Butterfield portrays Nathan’s condition with the utmost integrity, something that is extremely difficult as it would be so easy to overplay it. What Nathan experiences is impossible for anyone to explain or make sense out of exactly, especially in a numeric formula, the only method of reasoning that Nathan can truly comprehend. How Nathan deals with his narrative experiences and learns about the world may be on a very clear narrative path, but it makes for deeply engaging and emotionally involving viewing.
The supporting cast are all excellent in what are all vital roles; Rafe Spall gives one of his best performances as Mr Humphries, a former maths genius that teaches Nathan and is inflicted by Multiple Sclerosis. In some films his story and the bitterness and resentment he has against the world as his condition gets worse would be an unwelcomed subplot that feels more like pure filler or distraction, but Spall’s exceptional performance and the wonderfully understated script by James Graham make sure that is very much not the case. His dry sense of humour is an attempt to mask the pain and self hatred he feels, and his character’s story often brings warmth and humour, but also another emotional level to an already emotional story.
The always excellent Sally Hawkins captures the struggle her character experiences at not only losing tragically losing her husband but struggling to understand and accommodate Nathan’s condition, but yet having put a brave face on for the outside world. Hawkins captures the internal heartbreak and often extreme loneliness that her character experiences with heartbreaking authenticity. Her character cannot show to those around her that she is struggling to cope, and Hawkins captures with profound subtlety the personal and internal struggles her character suffers.
One of the standout performances that provide some of the film’s most genuinely heartbreaking moments is Jake Davies as Luke, one of Nathan’s fellow candidate and maths genius, that has also been diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum. It is an incredible performance that would be very easy to overplay, likewise the script over emphasise and therefore all integrity would be immediately lost. Some of Luke’s scenes are written and acted so well that they are genuinely heartbreaking and full credit should go to James Graham for a script that explores themes and personal struggles that very few films are brave enough to even attempt to depict.
In any situation there can be comedy and though I would personally argue that X+Y is very much first and foremost a drama, there are moments of genuine comedy, but they feel natural, respectful and never forced.
As the narrative goes along admittedly there are certainly plenty of moments that will not surprise anyone when they happen. However, with a script that skilfully manages together its character’s own personal subplots and struggles, and the performances that give genuine emotional investment into its characters (something hideously lacking in so many films these days) X+Y is a superb and deeply involving drama that will move and engage even the most hardened of viewer and stay long in the memory.
Though having a narrative structure that sticks to a simple formula, X+Y contains within it exceptional performances and an intelligent and understated script that shows a deep respect and understanding for its subject matter to make for a deeply involving, sometimes heartbreaking and profoundly rewarding drama.