Saturday, 26 December 2015

X+Y (A Brilliant Young Mind) (2015) - Movie Review

When a person is discovered to have what is considered above-average intelligence, there is a certain expectation that they will fulfill their potential. Now, to a degree, this is understandable: Knowing how many truly stupid people exist in the world, it really would be a shame if someone with genuine intellect would just let it go to waste. But then, there’s the side effects that that kind of expectation can have on the person in question. I remember my last day of Year 10 excruciatingly well, as probably one of the best and one of the worst of my entire school career. Somehow, and I still don’t know how, I managed to top the class in my English School Certificate. The next year, I was “heavily advised” to go into the Advanced class, despite my best wishes. This would end up culminating in my HSC two years later, which officially broke me because not only was it clearly beyond my abilities, but that I was expected to pass it by my teachers. Sure, hindsight is a miracle worker and let me understand that all that work really doesn’t mean jack shit later on in life, but in a vacuum it is a horrific experience. Keep that idea of the supposed responsibility to one’s own intelligence as we get into today’s subject.

The plot: Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is a teenaged mathematics prodigy, whose main goal is to make it into the International Mathematics Olympiad. With the tutelage of former maths Olympian Martin (Rafe Spall) and the support of his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins), he makes it to a maths camp that will decide if he is one of the six to make it to the IMO. However, when confronted with others like him, he finds that he may not be ready for the social possibilities presented to him.

Asa Butterfield previously knocked the socks off of the critical masses with his turn as the lead in Hugo, probably making for one of the best showcases for child acting in recent memory. Thankfully, he hasn’t lost an inch of his touch, as he portrays Nathan’s social disconnection and confusion of the world around him expertly. Edward Baker-Close does a terrific job as the younger Nathan, showing a real-life sense of naivety and freshly learning about the world that would go on to confuse him later on in life. Rafe Spall makes for a more rattled mentor role than is usually seen in what is essentially a sports movie, balancing aloofness with a hint of tragedy surprisingly well; good to see his experience with Edgar Wright hasn’t gone to waste.

Detailing a teenager’s social inadequacies is hardly anything new for the realms of coming-of-age cinema. However, what genuinely impresses with this film is how honed-in it feels. I’ve seen how adults act when they are trying to show that they approachable to run-of-the-mill teens, let alone teens who have diagnosed on the spectrum. This doesn’t carry any of that hokeyness nor feel like it’s aiming for what it can’t reach. Instead, through Butterfield’s down-played performance coupled with the atmosphere afforded him by the camera work, editing and score, we get a real sense of a kid who doesn’t fit into social circles. The film ties a lot of the actions of the characters into the idea of patterns and recurrence, beyond just the realm of mathematics, and how people feel most comfortable when they established their own. Through Nathan, we see the comfort he takes in solving mathematical equations, and through Martin, we get something more self-destructive in a downward spiral with his lack of self-worth and dependency on pharmaceuticals. We also see how changes in said patterns can affect people who operate so heavily on routine, like those on the spectrum. Whether it’s seemingly minor changes, like flying overseas for the first time, or drastically major ones, like the loss of his father, it is a palpable feeling even for those who can’t exactly connect with it.

However, the big surprise of the whole production comes about in the form of one of the side characters, that being Luke Shelton played by Jake Davies. Now, from his first handful of scenes, he is shown as even more socially awkward than most others, coming across as cold and inflexible and, if I’m being honest, a bit of a prick. Really, he kept making me think of the almost inhuman socialising Sheldon from TBBT would partake in, and God knows that reminding me of that isn’t going to help anyone. Then, through a single scene involving him watching an old Monty Python skit on a computer, there is a total paradigm shift. Being considered clever brings with it a lot of pressure to fulfil what is considered to be your obligation to use your cleverness in schooling. Of course, there’s the fact that we are social creatures and, regardless of how we may come across, every one of us needs interaction with other people. If given the chance, I’m willing to bet that most people would give every bit of intellect they have, if only it meant that they could get along better with others. Hell, just because they’re in a room with people that are like them with similar interests, that doesn’t change the fact that that crippling shyness is still present.

What I’m getting at with all this is that, with how Luke is portrayed as trying to connect with the other mathletes, it should be reluctantly relatable for the more introverted audiences out there. Hell, given how much I’ve been cramming my days full of films to review over the last few weeks, that feeling of trying (and failing) to connect with people on terms that you feel most comfortable with really hits home. Through how he reacts to the pressure of not only succeeding academically, but also in the social sphere, Luke actually becomes the best character in the film; it’s undeniably tragic how badly he wants to fit in but, from all outward appearances, he seems to just hate everyone.

All in all, this is a deeply resonating emotional drama about the pressures that society places on people to use their God-given intellect and the attitudes that result from it. The acting is great, particularly from Butterfield and Davies and the writing portrays social anxiety brilliantly, balancing out the characters’ evident smarts with their lack of knowledge about interacting with others. This probably ranks higher with me because I still remember going through similar situations myself from a few years back, but that doesn’t negate how well executed the production is as a whole.

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