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X+Y = A+

In his first narrative feature, award winning documentary filmmaker Morgan Matthews takes us on an emotionally rewarding journey to the world of competitive math.

During my BIFF film selection process, I make a huge effort to shelter myself from information beyond the small blurb in the BIFF catalogue, particularly trailers and reviews. I prefer to enter a film, BIFF or otherwise, without expectation. As a result, I’ve wandered into my fair share of films that have been tremendous disappointments and those by which I have been pleasantly surprised. X + Y most definitely fits into the second category.

When I met Morgan Matthews at Saturday night’s French party at Beach Bikini bar, he was among a group of young filmmakers, many of whom are at BIFF showing their first features, shot on minimal budgets. I just naturally assumed that he, too, was fresh out of the gate. So when, during the first few moments of X + Y, I discovered that it contained a star-studded cast, fronted by Oscar nominated Sally Hawkins and Asa Butterfield, fresh off of his role as the iconic Ender Wiggin, I realized that I might just have plucked out a gem.

The film tells the story of Nathan (Asa Butterfield), an  introspective boy on the autism spectrum. Just after being diagnosed, Nathan loses his playful, attentive father (Martin McCann) in a tragic car accident and, consequently, any ability or desire to form attachments with others, particularly his mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins). Hawkins gives a gut-wrenching performance as a woman who has lost her partner and is desperate to connect with her son, who resists her every attempt to bond.

Noting his extraordinary interest and abilities in math, Julie engages the tutoring services of local math teacher, Mr. Humphreys. Rafe Spall brings both humor and pathos to Humphreys, a man drowning in self-pity due to his losing battle with Multiple Sclerosis. Humphreys’ own socially withdrawn demeanor allows for, if not a connection, a mutual respect with young Nathan.


Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall
Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall

When, in his adolescence,  Nathan is chosen to compete on Great Britain’s team in the International Mathematical Olympiad, he must attend a training camp in Taiwan. His coach, Richard, in fantastic supporting turn by Eddie Marsan, treats him just like all of the other brainiacs on the team, forcing Nathan to confront many of his emotional and behavioral obstacles. This role is yet another win for rising young star Butterfield, who brought to life the titular character in the 2012 Academy darling, Hugo.

Matthews based the film on his own 2007 documentary, Beautiful Young Minds, and a young man named Daniel inspired the character of Nathan. He drew on another young man that he met while filming his BAFTA nominated documentary for the character of Luke, a team member whose own autistic traits manifest in a way that causes him to be ostracized by his peers. The contrast between the two characters, who, while grouped together clinically, have completely different struggles, was one of the most eye-opening story elements in X + Y.

morgan matthews biff

During his Q&A, Matthews, who confessed to not being great at math himself, spoke wistfully about the kids who inspired him to make X + Y. “They exist in this place that is beyond most of us, a sort of parallel plane. They understand that there are many ways to solve a problem and, as mathematicians, they are searching for the most beautiful way to solve each problem.”

While X + Y has an indie vibe, it is a pretty conventional film. It is linear. It is predictable. It is idealistic. And it is fantastic. The stellar performances, witty dialogue and emotionally rich character arcs put X + Y head and shoulders above most of the comedic dramas I’ve seen as of late.  There are a lot of ways to make a ‘kid triumphs over personal obstacles’ film. And Morgan Matthews has certainly found the beautiful way.

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