If Whiplash is a war film set in a music hall, then x+y resembles combat of an altogether academic sort. Both films focus on the skill, drive and determination involved in realising one’s potential; as well as the battles, wherever they may take place, that must be fought to do so.
Another point of similarity lies in the production of the two films. Both have been directed by first-time feature filmmakers, and both are born out of each director’s previous work: Whiplash from Damien Chazelle’s short, x+y from Morgan Matthews’ stimulating BBC documentary, Beautiful Young Minds.
The latter follows a group of gifted teenagers as they aim to stake their place in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). It is from this premise that x+y takes shape, following Asa Butterfield’s Nathan (inspired by his real-life counterpart, Daniel Lightwing) as he deals with autism and strives to make sense of the world around him.
In the order and reason of advanced mathematics, Nathan finds a method of approaching reality that makes sense to him. As his world is shaken by a blossoming relationship with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a member of the Chinese IMO team, it is revealing that it is to formulas and equations that Nathan turns. Predictably, however, mathematics doesn’t get him very far; a revelation that dawns upon Nathan slowly, leaving him both dissatisfied and frustrated.
Matthews succeeds in building upon the story he first unravelled in his documentary, taking creative license to move his camera into the private lives of these young geniuses. Rather than the IMO itself, it is the people that surround Nathan, and his attempts to connect with them, that form the most compelling aspect of the film.
Beginning the story completely closed-off from the outside world, Nathan is confronted by various characters that lead him to question his withdrawn stance. Enter the unconventional and anarchic Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall), an ex-IMO contender whose biting wit and personal flaws make him the perfect match for young Nathan. Unlike J.K. Simmons’ tyrannical mentor in Whiplash, Spall shares in Nathan’s confusion and uncertainty. The focus of their relationship isn’t on passing tests and asserting academic dominance. Instead, it’s about fostering understanding, cracking mathematic puzzles and developing their emotional identities.
There’s also a great deal to love about James Graham’s debut script. Taking Beautiful Young Minds as his starting point (and lifting surprising amounts of its stellar dialogue from the documentary), Graham allows each character’s pain to be realised. Nathan’s mum (Sally Hawkins) is shown to be worn out and craving company having been shut off by Nathan for too long. Spall’s demons come out too, and you sense that Nathan’s emotional progress is cathartic for all involved. Indeed, it certainly feels cathartic to watch.
X+Y is out on March 3