Director: Morgan Matthews (2015)
An autistic teenage maths prodigy seeks a formula for love in this humorous, gently uplifting and supremely moving British drama.
While exploring the delicate relationship between Nathan (Asa Butterfield) and his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins), the plot follows the template of an underdog sports movie, based on the world of international competitive maths.
The story was inspired by the director’s own BAFTA nominated documentary ‘Beautiful Young Minds‘ featuring real maths competitors. Here he makes sure the maths is always interesting and understandable, keeping a firm grip on tone by adding as much humour as possible so scenes are never maudlin.
Nathan suffers from autistim and synthesia; though highly gifted at maths he is socially awkward and sensitive to changes in light and colour. He must have his toast divided into geometrically exact slices and food such as prawns served in prime number portions.
He is struggling to come to terms with his father’s death in a car crash. In flashback we see the close connection he shared with his father Michael (Martin McCann).
This loss is accentuating Nathan’s condition and isolating his mother. She is barely coping with life and her blunt speaking son has no idea how hurtful his words frequently are.
Although his condition leads to small domestic accidents such as a broken window and a flooded kitchen, Nathan finds beauty and peace in the perfection of maths and its practical application such as the geometric shapes in bridge underpasses.
As Humphreys tutors Nathan a bond develops and the teen qualifies for a trial for the International Maths Olympiad UK team.
Nathan is flown to Taiwan by UK team leader Richard (Eddie Marsan) with sixteen extremely intelligent maths students. It’s the first time Nathan is painfully average.
They meet young competitors from different countries and all are under pressure. Refreshingly the film doesn’t pander to the audience by providing subtitles for the Chinese speakers – angry is angry regardless of the language.
Along the way there’s self-harm, accusations of nepotism and a dash to the station in rom-com style.
Only the best six students will be chosen to represent the UK at the Olympiad to be held at Cambridge University – as we’re only really introduced to half a dozen of the students, it’s not hard to work out who’ll survive the cut.
But the lack of tension is not important as the film is more interested in character than narrative. The real pleasure lies in this quality cast enjoying their acting and creating characters we care about.
Butterfield is the pick of a winning young cast whose quietly expressive performance carries the film with open-faced innocence. Marsan offers the closest anyone comes to grandstanding but always to serve the needs of the film. His upbeat performance is calculated to provide balance through optimism, comedy and tempo.
Spall is given the most choice lines and in his most affecting performance to date delivers them deadpan to great comic effect. Hawkins is as wonderful as ever, she plays Julie with brittle finesse and is the maternal soul the story coalesces around.