This is British filmmaker Morgan Matthews’ debut fiction feature. X+Y was released in the US as A Brilliant Young Mind, which simultaneously alludes to both Beautiful Young Minds, a 2007 documentary by Matthews from which he took his inspiration for this, and Ron Howard’s Oscar-laden A Beautiful Mind biopic, which took questionable liberties to chronicle the life of mathematician John Nash.
Passions of a Pythagoras kind
Starring Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game) as Nathan Ellis, the film follows Nathan’s struggle to make sense of his place in the world through a mathematical filter that few around him can understand or appreciate. At an early age, his concerned parents seek advice from specialists who place him on the autism spectrum and label him ‘unique’. It is also at this time Nathan first articulates his preoccupation with ‘patterns’ – describing the satisfaction of finding one as ‘nice’.
However, when Nathan’s father – the deep bond they share we later learn of through flashback – is killed outright in a car accident, Nathan retreats further inside himself. Soon, mathematics becomes his sole passion, leaving little room for anything else in his life as he becomes more socially awkward, distant from his mother and generally isolated.
The brother grim
Only his private maths coach, Martin (Spall – the brother of Timothy), provides a link to the world outside and any sense of gravity for Nathan. A has-been maths prodigy himself, Martin begins prepping Nathan for a place on Team GB for the International Mathematics Olympiad.
Spall plays Martin with a jaunty air of devil-may-care, casually mumbling many of his lines in a misjudged, self-conscious performance that is oddly reminiscent of Martin Freeman’s to-the-camera segments in The Office. He’s written conventionally as an ‘unconventional’ character – the teacher who smokes weed (gasp) and swears a lot around pupils (gulp) but, despite his own troubles (which include self-loathing and MS), has a heart of gold. Nevertheless, the character just about functions as he should, but it all feels a bit tired and forced, particularly when Martin begins a woefully predictable courtship with Nathan’s widowed mother.
Goofy, gooey gruesomeness
Which leads us to Mike Leigh regular Sally Hawkins as Nathan’s mother. As funny and touching as she was recently in Paddington, she plays this role with nearly the same maternal goofiness, and her mannered tone, oh-so-English social foibles (of the Hugh Grant variety), fake hesitations and pouty attempts at winning our sympathies become excruciating.
The result is that one is more likely to identify with Nathan than her – especially when he shoves her out of his bedroom for not being clever enough.
Butterfield also played a child prodigy of sorts in the failed sci-fi franchise attempt, Ender’s Game, but there is an inherent difficulty in making a chilly, introverted character relatable for an audience. In a later scene between Nathan and his mother, all of Nathan’s suppressed emotions surrounding his father’s death finally erupt – and his mother helps him to ‘find the pattern’ in order to cope with his pain.
Saved by a final flourish
Despite regrettable dialogue about ‘finding the formula for love’, the performances are strong, and that touching scene serves to considerably elevate what has gone before. It also reveals Nathan’s real struggle to be a personal one, rather than academic – thereby celebrating spiritual well-being over competitive zeal and wisely highlighting the importance of finding a balance between the two.