Prestige Trumps the Popular

in 39th Toronto International Film Festival

by Thom Ernst

X+Y is one of the most accessible films in the Discovery programme at TIFF2014. Unfortunately, accessibility has a way of working against a movie particularly when launched in a category where most other films stand on the strength of their political and social engagement. Prestige trumps the popular. Not that X+Y is a slight film. It isn’t. It’s a compelling reflection of a young life dictated by the parameters of a neurological disorder. It just also happens to be a crowd-pleaser – and one with significant market potential thanks in part to its cast: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall and Eddie Marsan.

Director Morgan Matthews has crafted a small filmaround a big story. It has all the fixtures: the charm of unsophisticated innocence, the slightly skewed charisma of an outsider, the devotion of a loving mother and the possibility of beating the odds.

TIFF’s Discovery programme is designed to showcase directorial feature debuts but it seems somewhat disingenuous to call Matthews a first-time director. Matthews is an accomplished documentarian with a long list of television credits.

In a way, Matthews has made this film before. In 2007 he directed and produced Beautiful Young Minds, a documentary following participants into the International Mathematical Olympiads. X+Y is the fictional extension of that documentary with characters and story-lines fleshed out in a script by James Graham. On word from those who’ve seen both films there is, apparently, enough fact in the fiction to label it a dramatization. Thankfully, Matthews doesn’t burden X+Y under the scrutiny of the banner ‘based on a true story’ as a way to justify moments that may seem inauthentic.

Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Hugo) stars as Nathan, a young math prodigy, diagnosed with autism, and faced with the trauma of having lost his father in a car accident. It’s a premise that could easily veer into melodrama were Matthews not intent on establishing a lighter tone.

Sally Hawkins is Nathan’s mother. She assures order and symmetry in all aspects of Nathan’s life: His toast needs to be perfectly arranged on his plate, the amount of items in his Chinese take-away must add up to a primary number, and there are to be no surprises in his daily routines. She does all this tirelessly and without complaint fully aware that her only reward will be her son’s stone-faced complacency.

Nathan is likeable but incapable of grasping the conventions of social interactions. He responds to “How do you do?” with “How do I do what?” Tothe world he’s a nearly invisible oddity; a quiet mystic capable of mathematical wizardry.Nathan sees the world as an equation of geometric shapes and patterns.It’s a disorder that makes interacting with others a challenge, but it’s also what makes him a candidate to trainin Taiwan for the upcoming International Mathematical Olympiad. He goes and it’s there that a bigger and more inclusive world opens up to him.

There is a measure of sentiment in the film, particularly in the budding relationship between Nathan and another competitor, Jo Yang (Zhang Mei), that risks alienating a more guarded audience. Those immune to the appeal of feel-good cinema might find the story too narrow in its praise of kind graces and good intentions to be a viable contender in the world market. It’s not an unwarranted objection.

No question X+Y is a film designed to please. But Matthews demonstrates a restraint that prevents the film from being so earnest that it distracts from its over-all appeal. It’s an interesting transition when a documentarian turns to feature drama and goes from finding the fiction in truth, to finding the truth in fiction. Matthews successfully makes that transition.