Autistic* teenage maths prodigy Nathan (Asa Butterfield, known for ‘Hugo’) struggles when it comes to building relationships with other people, not least with his mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins). In a world difficult to comprehend, he finds numbers satisfying and safe.
When Nathan is taken under the wing of unconventional teacher, Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall), the pair forges an unusual friendship. Eventually, Nathan’s talents win him a place on the UK National team at the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) and the team travel to a training camp in Taiwan, under the supervision of squad leader Richard (Eddie Marsan). In unfamiliar surroundings, Nathan is confronted by a series of unexpected challenges — not least the unfamiliar feelings he begins to experience for his Chinese counterpart, the beautiful Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), feelings that develop when the young mathematicians return to England for the IMO, held at Trinity College, Cambridge.
“This is a beautiful film on many levels,” writes Louise Keller. “I laughed and cried through the highs and lows, satisfied by the richness of the emotional journey as it comes to a spectacular conclusion.”
Filmmaker Morgan Matthews' “affinity for the subject and empathy for his characters pays rich dividends, while his documentary background shines through in his and DP Danny Cohen's eye for striking visual details, especially in the Taiwanese locations,” writes Leslie Felperin in Hollywood Reporter.
For filmmaker Morgan Matthews, the journey that led to his debut feature film, X+Y, began when he started work on a trilogy of documentary films, all of which aired in 2007 and explored a series of very different — and somewhat unusual — competitions.
These included Hair Wars, Blue Suede Jew and Beautiful Young Minds, the latter emerging as a 90-minute feature documentary that recorded the trials and travails of a group of students heading to the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO).
All three documentaries were successful, with Beautiful Young Minds, proving a critical hit, and going on to be nominated for a BAFTA TV Award for Best Single Documentary. One of the film’s subjects was a student called Daniel, who has a neurodevelopmental disorder that fosters mathematical genius.
Indeed, such was the drama and substance to Daniel’s story that Matthews began contemplating a dramatic retelling of a similar tale, a fictional story inspired by the personalities and events that unfold in the documentary.
“I always felt this story had the potential to be dramatized and that this fascinating world could be represented in a feature film,” he begins, “you often find that while a documentary film is very close to the subject, you can’t be there all of the time, and that there are certain aspects of these people’s lives that you are simply not able to cover.
“Also, the period of time in which you are filming a documentary is often quite restricted,” he adds. “With X+Y, we have a much longer film in terms of the time period it covers. In addition, it brings this subject to a different and wider audience.”
Telling a dramatic story also allows for creative licence. “It is a real liberation, and we took a lot of creative licence with this story,” Matthews says. “X+Y is inspired by the documentary.
“Some of the characters are inspired by the documentary and perhaps recognisable but it is important to remember that the people on screen are not the same people from the documentary.
“They are our created characters who are inspired by elements of the documentary. This is not the true story of what happened.”
According to X+Y producer Laura Hastings-Smith, Matthews’ particular skills as a documentarian, and the insights he has revealed in his films, made him a prime candidate to become a feature director.
“Really, Beautiful Young Minds is an inspiration for X+Y and if you look at Morgan’s documentaries he is always interested in people who are maybe a little on the edge, a little different,” she explains.
“He is keen to understand them and to show them for their strengths as well as their weaknesses, to validate them as individuals with talent and with things to say. He gets into what makes people human.”
* Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects, among other things, the way an individual relates to his or her environment and their interaction with other people.