(M) Starring: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall
In 2007, Morgan Matthews directed the documentary Beautiful Young Minds , that focused upon the weird and wonderful young competitors at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). The subject matter obviously left its mark on Matthews because, years later, he has return to it for his feature film debut X+Y.
X+Y tells the story of Nathan Ellis (played by Asa Butterfied), an autistic boy who lives with his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) in Yorkshire. Diagnosed at a young age, Nathan’s social difficulties were accelerated when his dad was killed in a car accident. Nathan’s key interest is mathematics but whenever Julie tries to help him, he frequently reminds her she is not clever enough to do so. Former child prodigy Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall) is hired to tutor Nathan and, together, they set sights upon the IMO in Cambridge.
The IMO training camp in Taiwan is a pressure-filled environment intended to whittle the squad down from 16 to six. Despite such intensity, Nathan is surrounded by people like him — for the first time in his life. 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 (Jo Yang) — who takes an immediate shine to Nathan — and the abrasive Luke (Jake Davies). Luke is an outsider among outsiders. Luke also is autistic but, unlike Nathan, he has not been brought up to feel special. In a heartbreaking exchange he explains to Nathan: “It’s all right being weird as long as you’re gifted. But if you aren’t gifted, that just leaves weird.”
Star of Hugo and Ender’s Game, Butterfield gives an impressive performance as 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 will be familiar to most viewers. As a result, you might look elsewhere in X+Y for your access points, such as those closest with Nathan (Julie and tutor Martin).
Through Julie, viewers can feel the isolation as experienced by a single parent who has an autistic child. Julie is desperate to connect with Nathan but he is incapable of giving her that emotional validation she longs for as a mother. Martin has his own baggage. He has multiple sclerosis, so fears of being an additional burden makes him scared to explore feelings for Julie.
For those not of a mathematical persuasion, there is nothing to fear here. A great respect for the mathematical abilities of these talented kids is successfully communicated, without delving too much into details. However, at times, X+Y does feel a little calculated and formulaic in its story and character arcs.
For the most part, its an uplifting and engaging film boasting an honest, authentic portrait of autism. As such, it’s a bit disappointing when it drops the ball at its conclusion. Far from the first time in movie history 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. After so much good work, this does a slight disservice to real-life people living with autism, and those caring for them.