Glasgow Film Festival: Moving drama with Asa Butterfield and Rafe Spall
The story of a young maths prodigy with autism, Morgan Matthews’ film could be viewed as a juvenile Rain Man. At least that would be the case if a Hollywood studio had made it. But actually, this British tale of the difficulties of adolescence and adulthood is a sweet rather than saccharine tale, quietly told and lent emotional heft by a cast led by Asa Butterfield.
Inspired by Matthews’ own 2007 TV documentary Beautiful Young Minds, his debut narrative feature follows Yorkshire lad Nathan Ellis (Butterfield), an emotionally distant but gifted teenager who has been told he's on the autism spectrum. After witnessing his father’s death in a car crash, the young Nathan was left shell-shocked and, years on, is still unable to connect with his mum Julie (Sally Hawkins).
When Rafe Spall’s teacher Humphreys takes an interest, encouraging Nathan to try out for the International Mathematics Olympiad, you could imagine how X+Y might add up – with scenes of fist-pumping triumph. However, the script from James Graham is more subtle than that, not least in its focus on Spall’s disillusioned, MS-suffering tutor and his blossoming-yet-awkward relationship with Hawkins.
Butterfield, who came to the fore in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, heads up the film with aplomb, playing Nathan with a real sadness behind the eyes. At times, the narrative gets a little lost, notably when Nathan journeys to Taipei for the IMO try-outs, under the watchful eye of Eddie Marsan’s effervescent guardian, Richard.
Thankfully, Butterfield’s absorbing work keeps you watching, even in the film's sluggish moments; and the final scene, between him and Hawkins, is as heartbreaking as they come. Yet it’s Rafe Spall that almost steals X+Y. He may have a way to go to match his father’s superlative body of work, but he brings to the table a raw honesty so reminiscent of Spall senior it could've been passed through the genes.
Screening on Wed 25 Feb and Thu 26 Feb as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2015. General release from Fri 13 Mar.