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A British film to savour, this impish, compassionate drama about gifted autism sidesteps every cliché, coyness and gaucherie. Think of Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close and then happily stop thinking about it, moving on as movie art has done here. Morgan Matthews, a documentarist directing his first feature, has an instinct for telltale truths and telling cinematic touches.
Most of his main actors in X+Y are plucked, direct or at one remove, from the Mike Leigh Repertory Troupe. Sally Hawkins plays single mum to autistic Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a teenager also traumatised by the car crash that killed his dad. (This is a heart-juddering, shock-impact scene even in flashback.) Rafe Spall, son of Tim, plays the grumpy yet waggish maths teacher with early-stage MS who coaches Nathan for the International Mathematical Olympiad. Eddie Marsan pops up as the cheerful, martinet group minder escorting the whizzes to Taipei play-offs, then Cambridge finals.
Every scene has a twist or torque of tone or style, as if director Matthews, who co-conceived the story with screenwriter James Graham, sees the film as a cinematic Rubik’s Cube. To be completed skilfully and economically, yet richly and colourfully.
Count the grace-notes. Matthews and cinematographer Danny Cohen use Nathan’s obsession with patterns as a bouncing-off point for repeat-motif panoramas, clever and kaleidoscopic. Little-box houses in a teeming suburbia; desks in a vast exam room, like the famously epic typing pool in Welles’s The Trial. I loved also, as a visual conceit, the low-angle shot — a mere throwaway — of Nathan’s head with a ceiling fan whirring behind it, like some halo of animating intellect. And when his Asperger’s shyness turns jealous the first time mum home-dates his teacher, a telescope tipped through the glass roof of the canoodlers’ conservatory is a perfect comic pay-off. Boy stargazer sends his thunderbolt to Earth. Cosmos-ordering starts at home.
Later a few too many subplots converge, including bi-continental teen romance, in the cause of a feelgood finish. We’re also unsure, as shallows swell, if autism or dad’s death (revisited late on for trauma resolution) is the cause of Nathan’s psycho-emotional condition. We want to shout at the screen: “Hey! Stay with the themes!” But it’s still a clever, imaginative, supple movie, true to itself in spirit and essence, even when straying from strict itineraries.