When tragedy befalls Nathan’s (Butterfield – Enders Game) small family unit, depriving him of the one person with whom he had a connection, the socially awkward youth is left with his worrywart mother (Hawkins) and his passion for solving formula as his only solace. His unique talents are coaxed out of him by the equally unique professor Humpreys (Spall – Life of Pi), together they form enough of a bond for Nathan to be entered into what are essentially the mathematics Olympics, and as a consequence, he is forced to confront a previously locked boxed of unfelt emotions and relationships.
Much like a formula, at the nucleus of this gentle fable is a stunning little performance from Butterfield. His embryonic career has been shaped by playing characters on the periphery, his wide-eyed fragility carried Hugo, and he was the best thing about the underrated sci-fi mis-fire Ender’s Game, but this is a different turn altogether, absent of special effects, resting entirely on his young shoulders, and he is exceptional at holding and earning the audience’s empathy.
Shooting off from the nucleus are all the interconnecting relationships in X+Y. It’s not just about Nathan’s struggles, each character has their own considered arc, of which Sally Hawkins is possibly the most emotive, as a mother coping with the disconnectivity of being emotionally alienated from her son. The moment Nathan tells her that she’s “not clever enough” plants an immovable lump in the viewers’ throat. Then there’s Spall, who until now has flattered to deceive in the few lead role Britcoms he’s done, but is revelatory here as the MS suffering lecturer, his interaction with both Hawkins and Butterfield provide the overarching sweetness that permeates the entire movie.
It’s a good thing that the performances are that strong, because it prevents X+Y becoming too cloying during the more saccharine coated beats of the final third. Problems only really arise when the focus shifts towards a romantic element between the two young leads and the story begins to drag. It’s necessary because it helps to underline Nathan’s burgeoning confidence, but there’s a more interesting and less forced love angle being played out between Spall and Hawkins.
Shot confidently, with a few nice visual flourishes and an effectively filmed car crash sequence, this is a promising feature debut from Matthews, and one of the best British independent films in recent memory.
Review by Matthew Rodgers
[SRA value=”3.5″ type=”YN”]