Saturday 21 March 2015

The Happiness Equation ?

This is a review of x + y (2014) plus Q&A with director Morgan Matthews

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

20 March

This is a review of x + y (2014), as screened at The Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge (@CamPicturehouse), followed by a Q&A with director Morgan Matthews, on Thursday 19 March at 6.15 p.m.

NB If you prefer a straight review, an edited version is here, which renders these instructions unnecessary : skip what follows, resume with the heading Text, and omit what follows after Sub-text


Since we commonly talk of what we value, we might be presented with (or devise) the following simultaneous equations, the form of the first of which is almost implied by the title (equally with the element, albeit of descriptive language (not algebra), that has us talk of X and Y chromosomes ?).

We can then solve them just by adding (1) and (2), which causes the second term (y) to cancel out, leaving (3), i.e. [the value of] x was zero all along, and, feeding it back into (1), so was [that of] y :

(1) x + y = 0
(2) 6xy = 0

(3) 7x = 0

If, instead, we seek to substitute what follows, as (2A), for (2), we can scale it up to the value of the first term in (1) (x), by multiplying through by 4, to give (3A), and then subtract (1) from (3A), to give (4), so therefore [the value of] y is 7, and, when it is put into (1), [that of] x must be 7 :

(1) x + y = 0
(2A) ¼x + 2y = 7

(3A) x + 8y = 49

(4) 7y = 49


This is a charming film, which rotates the notions of what hinders, and what assists, communication and, although the question put to director Morgan Matthews suggested that x + y (2014) has a convergence with the story of Good Will Hunting (1997), it does very much more than what is, in essence, a two-hander for Robin Williams and Matt Damon*.

Actually, x + y sometimes feels as though it is doing slightly too much, both for its running-time** and own good, in trying to touch upon the immense issue of self-harm only in passing, and also as to whether it unduly offers hope, even if rooted in one person’s life (please see below), for overcoming what seems intractable behaviour of an autistic nature. Thus, we hear the words ‘the spectrum’ several times, as well as a cynical attitude from Richard (Eddie Marsan) about disability, in specific relation to (intellectual) achievement and whether MS (multiple sclerosis) is [being used as] an excuse :

In common with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape ? (1993) (reviewed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen for TAKE ONE), a connection is found in the experience of loss. There is, though, a further one in that Baron-Cohen (who also appeared in Matthews’ documentary Beautiful Young Minds (2007)) introduced that screening at The Arts Picturehouse for SciScreen, as well as, as we were told, being at one of x + y a week ago. Baron-Cohen, pre-eminent in his field, is hardly immune as a practitioner in promulgating his own 'take on' autism, which is, let us say (and as recollected from 2013), somewhat suspicious of some notion of not colluding with the sort of diagnostic findings that are made by, amongst others institutions not as rigorous, perhaps, as his / our Cambridge Lifespan Asperger Syndrome Service (CLASS)... ?

Not that, though, the film is all Asperger’s / autistic spectrum, because without wishing to make it sound any more top heavy, when it really is not, but, as Made in Dagenham (2010) does (with this fim's Sally Hawkins), treats of non-childish things there are also significant resonances with portrayals of grieving, mentoring and awkward patterns of behaviour, which may have us mentally referencing (to name a few, in alphabetical order)***  :

* Another Earth (2011)
* The History Boys (2006)
* The Imitation Game (2014)

Matthews, asked about Good Will, did say that he had revisited the film since its release, and positively so, but did not identify with the convergence* (whose elements will not be argued for more here, beyond that we see finding oneself become more important than ‘success’, and Will being helped to work out, by others, what really does matter...). What Matthews did agree, which he later summarized when answering another question as three films, i.e. (1) the one that one writes, (2) the one that one shoots, and (3) the one that one edits, is that, at stage (3), that he had felt it necessary (not his words) to open up Nathan from the start with a voice-over, which tells us that, whatever Nathan says / fails to say, he is feeling things, but is afraid to say them.

When asked about the character of Luke***, and his role in the film (played by Jake Davies), Matthews was very careful not unlike with Daniel Lightwing to name the person, but said that he had met someone on whom Luke was based in the same (or a similar) connection. (So it is possible that one could identify him from Beautiful Young Minds, if one wanted ?) In the context of the film, it felt as though Luke might have been a not totally assimilated version of what Matthews had observed when making that documentary :

As if expecting we human-beings to be consistent (and live lives in obedience to rational principles, such as in mathematics ?), Matthews, talking to the Picturehouse audience as he oulined the origins of Luke, still seemed struck by the fact that, although some of the young mathematicians had been treated badly at school (as also evoked in The Imitation Game) for being (not his exact words) ‘nerdy’ and ‘not fitting in’, they were apparently blind to the fact that they then did the same to a fellow competitor. (Hardly uniquely, given a part-Cambridge setting, the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO – with its whizzy web-site), was shown as edgily competitive, and not above 'dirty tricks'.)

Matthews acknowledged that, at times, Luke does exclude himself, but said that, when he desires to do otherwise [studying Cleese and Palin, with The Norwegian Blue, and attempting to bring comedy in at the wrong time and in the wrong way], his clumsiness brings him rejection. Almost as if (as fellow IMO competitor Isaac [Cooper***] (Alex Lowther) wants to assert and as Baron-Cohen had seemed to want to allude to, when talking about people such as Arnie Grape (Leonardo di Caprio) in relation to Johnny Depp, as his brother in Gilbert Grape)) there are acceptable 'faces of' autism, and those where people are treated as if they are not making sufficient effort to normalize how they are…

Not for the first time (e.g. Tyrannosaur (2011)), bullying and Eddie Marsan come together. Here, in Richard, it may be of the ostensibly nice variety, which wants nebulous, noble things such as the best for the UK team (whatever the cost to individuals ?), and relishes the competitiveness of life in the IMO village (complete with immediately ominous, but not threatening, Big-Brother-type eye mural), but who vicariously desires a win from those who, he hopes, will be medalists. So he is not uninvolved in what happens and can thus casually seek to side-line the man who has been Nathan’s teacher for seven years…

As for a few other things, such as yoking Keats ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’****, in asserting the beauty of mathematics (when the syllogism that cites an equality between ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’, and vice versa, does not even mention mathematics, and the last two lines are the urn’s apostrophe to another age ?), the very overt symbolism of lights, signals and other sensory overload, and whether Nathan’s problems are really autistic in nature (and / or psychological, in some other interpretation ?), the viewer must judge the weight to give them.

However, what cannot be denied is the centrality and power of what Sally Hawkins brings to this film : heightened, certainly, by the emotional valleys in which we have to be so much, nonetheless the sense of what she feels in this film as Nathan’s mum Julie is very present, and almost bursts through 'the third wall' of the screen, with her fervent wish to find a way to relate to him and for him to understand that she loves him, not that she is a nuisance, or an embarrassment, to be rejected.


In what little we hear between Nathan and his father Michael (Martin McCann), there is a fleeting suggestion that Michael queries his son’s diagnosis on the spectrum : for, semi-rhetorically, Michael asks him what the doctor knows whom we see with Nathan at the clinic, plunged into a split-level moment of confrontation for him (and of incomprehension / interpretation for parents and us ?) with an illuminated / illuminating stegosaurus.

In on-screen terms, we do not perhaps have much down-time to ask, but do we sense that someone’s (Julie’s, maybe ?) (over)concern about Nathan has actually brought about a medicalization of the family’s experience which, by missing what it is really like to be a child in that family and (to try) to relate to that child, overlooks that relationships are a dynamic process, with (at least) paired feedback loops à la Knots (pace R. D. Laing)... ?


* Quite apart from anything, this film does not have Minnie Driver (however funny she is, telling the joke with the black coffee), but the splendid Sally Hawkins, whose acting seems to get ever deeper and more moving, though it has always engaged and entranced (in Happy-go-Lucky (2008), for Mike Leigh, and Made in Dagenham (2010), to name but two).

The convergence itself is also in where the pivotal (and equally therapeutic relationship) between Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) and Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) ultimately leads**, which results in finding something within Nathan that neither Richard*** (Eddie Marsan), nor he, had been hunting. (Even if the story-arc (though maybe for lacking a clear sensation of the passing of time ?) feels as though it truncates the real-life story of Daniel Lightwing, who, we learnt, features in Matthews’ documentary Beautiful Young Minds (2007) (a title that references the Russell Crowe portrayal of John Nash in 2001 ? – with all its implications for linking, as The Imitation Game does, genius with otherness and separateness ?).)

** Even one of 111 minutes, which – confidently – do not flag at all.

*** One could mention Fill de Caín (Son of Cain) (2013), but, after all, there is nothing new under the sun, and it is unlikely that this would have been known to Matthews and James Graham, on which :

Graham was named by Matthews as his co-writer, but IMDb gives only Graham a writing credit. However, it provides no surname for Marsan’s character (Richard), only the surname for Rafe Spall’s (i.e. Humphreys), yet tells us that Nathan’s fellow competitor is Luke Shelton (whereas Nathan is just given as Nathan, but Martin McCann as Michael Ellis)…

**** The poem ends :

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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