Director: Morgan Matthews
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang
In 2007, Morgan Matthews directed a 90 minute documentary about the weird and wonderful young competitors at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) called Beautiful Young Minds. The subject matter obviously left its mark on the director as seven years later he would return to it for his feature film debut X+Y.
X+Y tells the story of Nathan Ellis, an autistic boy who lives with his mother Julie in Yorkshire. Diagnosed at a young age, Nathan’s social difficulties were accelerated when his father, with whom he shared a special bond, was killed in a car accident. Nathan’s interest is mathematics and with Julie incapable of meeting his appetite for maths – whenever she tries he frequently reminds her that she is not clever enough – she engages former child prodigy Martin Humphreys to tutor him. Together, Nathan and Martin set their sights on the IMO in Cambridge.
Upon arriving at the IMO training camp in Taiwan – a pressure filled environment intended to whittle the squad down from sixteen to six – for the first time in his life Nathan finds himself surrounded by people like him. As one of his peers assures, or perhaps threatens, “Here you are neither weird nor the best mathematician. You are painstakingly average.” Among these peers is the friendly Zhang Mei, who takes an immediate shining to Nathan, and the abrasive Luke. Luke is an outsider among outsiders. He, like Nathan, is autistic, but where Nathan has been brought up to feel special, Luke’s life experiences have left him feeling different. For Luke, the IMO is a chance at validation of who he is. In a heartbreaking exchange he explains to Nathan, “It’s alright being weird as long as you’re gifted. But if you aren’t gifted that just leaves weird.”
Asa Butterfield (Hugo and Ender’s Game) gives an impressive performance as the sensitive and shy Nathan, which demonstrates his development as a young actor. But being by nature such a closed character, Nathan is a difficult protagonist for us to engage with. He doesn’t respond emotionally to situations in ways that are familiar to us. As such, we look elsewhere in the film for our access points. Rather than aligning ourselves with Nathan, we tend to align ourselves with the people dealing with Nathan, in particular his mother, Julie, and his tutor, Martin. Through Julie we experience the isolation of a single parent with an autistic child. The bond Nathan shared with his father never extended to her. She is desperate for connection, but Nathan is incapable of giving her that emotional validation she longs for as a mother. Martin has his own baggage. He has multiple sclerosis, a degenerative condition which makes him scared to explore his feelings for Julie as he doesn’t want to become a further burden to her.
For those not of a mathematical persuasion, there is nothing to fear here. The film successfully communicates a great respect for the mathematical abilities of these talented kids without needing to delve too much into the details. There is only one instance in which Nathan is called upon to walk us through a maths problem on screen, and it is explained in such a way that the lay person can grasp it pretty easily.
X+Y does, itself, feel a little calculated and formulaic at times in its story and character arcs, but is none the less an uplifting and engaging film. It is also, for the most part, an honest and authentic portrait of autism, which makes it a bit disappointing when it drops the ball at its conclusion. Far from the first time that a concern for accuracy has been compromised for dramatic effect, the ending of X+Y, while emotionally satisfying, does not ring true of Nathan’s condition and after so much good work this does a slight disservice to both people living with autism, and those caring for people with autism.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen X+Y? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.