Though you know it’s coming as it’s been signposted like Chekhov’s Gun, there’s a real gut churner in the last ten minutes of X + Y – and, for an old seen-it-all type like me, that’s irrefutable proof that this film is a notch or two above the “awkward geniuses at Cambridge” fare that will follow the successes of the award-laden Turing and Hawking movies.
Our hero this time round is Nathan (Asa Butterfield in a nicely understated performance), a kid with more baggage than Heathrow at 7.00am on a Monday morning. No dodging the doctors here – we’re told upfront that Nathan is autistic – and he’s soon locked into his own world, with the patterns and predictability of numbers providing all the company he needs. He’s dealing with more than the spectrum, as if that wasn’t enough!
But the kid can do maths like Mozart could do music, so he’s soon on his way to Taiwan for a brutal selection boot camp for Team GB’s squad limbering up for the International Mathematics Olympiad (to be held in Cambridge – natch). There he meets kids even brighter (and even more extreme) than he is, which lends him some perspective; but his life really changes when he’s paired off with Chinese hopeful Zhang Mei (Jo Yang, who has plenty of everything needed to break down any teenage boy’s defences). Nathan learns that some things in life don’t reduce to binary numbers and edges towards the empathy that his autism has denied for so long.
It’s easy to spot a little Harry Potter here, a soupçon of His Dark Materials there and a light sprinkling of Spellbound (the Spelling Bee movie), but, somehow, the movie cliches (and they do keep coming) glide past painlessly. That’s a testament to highly impressive cinematography from Danny Cohen, who captures the contrast between urban Taiwan and the straight lines of the classroom with an elegance that made me very pleased that I was watching the film in a cinema. Praise too for Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins as Nathan’s teacher and mother, two characters who made me groan when introduced – they might as well have been written with a cookie-cutter – but two splendid performances carried an over-familiar subplot along with aplomb.
Perhaps the best recommendation for the movie comes not from me but from my two teenage boy mathematicians (they’re not at Nathan and Zhang Mei’s level, but they’re good). Asked if they liked it, they drawled “Yeah – it was good. Yeah” which is about as much as one can wrench from boys aged 14 and 17. Then I thought a bit and realised that they had hardly moved through the film’s 111 minutes – no squirming, no grabbing for their drinks, no kicking off shoes. That told me that they identified with and cared about the boy on screen and those trying to relate to him. And I hope, when their turn comes to step out of their comfort zones as life “gets complicated”, they’ll recall this film’s central message – because sometimes the best things in life just don’t add up, no matter how much maths you know.