Wednesday, October 15, 2014

LFF review: X+Y equals tears+laughter

X+Y celebrated it's European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in front of an ethousiastic home crowd. Numerous members of the cast and crew had made their way to Leicester square in order to witness the fruits of their labour on the big screen. And they did have a reason to celebrate: Morgan Matthews has created a funny and moving crowdpleaser that will surely find an audience.

Is there a mathematical formula for love? This question occupies Nathan's mind. Nathan has always been different. He is extremely quiet, unable to express himself and shies away from physical contact. The loss of his father in a car crash when he was a child makes matters even worse. The film never specifies the nature of his condition as autism or Asperger's syndrome (and it doesn't matter), but Nathan is also blessed with an exceptional cleverness and talent for mathematics. He is played Asa Butterfield, who comes of age as an actor with this remarkable performance. 

When Nathan is selected to represent the UK at the prestigious International Mathematics Olympiad, he has to leave his comfort zone for the first time. Leaving his mother (Sally Hawkins) and mentor (Rafe Spall) behind, the teenager takes off towards China in order to prepare for the competition. The challenges he has to face would be hard for anyone: enormous pressure to succeed, a foreign culture, social tensions. The maths problems seem easy in comparison. Fortunately he receives help from Zhang Mei, a girl on the Chinese team (Jo Yang who is cuter than a squirrel on waterskis).

The term "Olympiad" in the name of the central competition is more defining than "Mathematics" for the film, because it follows all the tropes of a sports movie. You always know where the story is going, but that is perfectly fine within this genre. The film's heart is in the right place and Morgan Matthews displays enormous affection for his characters. In 2007, he made a documentary about the British maths-team called Beautiful Young Minds , so this is a world he knows inside out. He never looks down on Nathan or tries to explain his "otherness." He simply accepts him for who he is, which is quite beautiful. Another important aspect is the humour. X+Y and particularly Rafe Spall's self-deprecating, witty teacher provide plenty of laughs. 

That said, the film does at times try too hard to be emotional. The narrative loses its way slightly in an increasing number of subplots, which all have to tie together neatly by the end. One character kind of comes across as a Sheldon Cooper-like caricature and a romance between Hawkins and Spall remains similarly underdeveloped, but the actors make it work. These minor flaws don't however take away from the fact that X+Y is a lovely feel-good film carrying an important message about understanding and priorities. 

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