This often charming film, written by playwright James Graham and directed by Morgan Matthews, focuses on the family and academic life of an autistic teenage maths prodigy played by the increasingly impressive Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game). Matthews previously made the BBC documentary Beautiful Young Minds, which followed a group of English schoolkids vying to take part in the International Mathematical Olympiad, and this film is partly a dramatisation of that selection process, with the story split between England and Taiwan (the distant places here, as with past and present events, linked smartly through recurring visual motifs).
Butterfield’s character Nathan is introduced as a younger child of six or seven, played by Edward Baker-Close, at the point that his parents Michael (Martin McCann) and Julie (Sally Hawkins) are given a diagnosis of autism. Shortly afterwards Michael is killed in a car accident and Nathan, traumatised as a result, struggles to communicate his feelings with his mother and retreats into a more comforting world of patterns and numbers. Maths comes to dominate Nathan’s life: when prawn balls are ordered from the Chinese takeaway Nathan insists on receiving seven because it’s a prime number, for example, and he recites the Fibonnacci sequence whenever he needs to calm down. However when Julie attempts to join in she is given short shrift: ‘You’re not clever enough,’ Nathan tells her matter-of-factly.
At school Nathan’s intelligence and aptitude for maths is identified at an early age, and he receives extra tuition in the subject from the sardonically witty and affable teacher Martin (Rafe Spall), a former maths prodigy struggling in adult life with multiple sclerosis. After several years working with Martin, Nathan is chosen to represent Great Britain in the International Mathematical Olympiad, and travels to Taiwan as part of a team to take part in a pre-tournament ‘boot camp’. There he meets Chinese hopeful Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a fellow mathlete who encourages Nathan to be more open and intimate while showing him around Taipei.
X+Y is at its most interesting when the story is transplanted to Asia, though the kitchen sink drama up to that point is perfectly fine in itself. It’s fascinating to witness the pressure felt by the students as the competition looms, the level of which is increased by Orion Lee and Eddie Marsan’s well-meaning but competitive chaperones, and as signs of stress begin to manifest themselves among the teenagers – particularly those with more obvious traits of autism – the drama becomes quite involving. Nathan exhibits a general lack of confidence, while another boy named Luke (the excellent Jake Davies) also finds communication and relating to other people a struggle, but in an altogether different way. His arrogance alienates him from his peers, who show a lack of understanding for his condition and treat him cruelly.
The film’s romantic threads are dealt with in a way that is refreshingly sweet and innocent, though arguably Nathan’s first experience of love leads a little too neatly to a breakthrough of sorts with his mother. There’s an understandable awkwardness between Nathan and Zhang Mei at first, but watching their kinship develop is heart-warming, while in the adult world there is something of a parallel as Julie and Martin enter nervously and clumsily into their first clinch (with teacher even accidentally falling on top of single mother at one point as a result of his MS). Both Yang and Butterfield are convincing, and though I wasn’t completely sold on the characters played by Hawkins and Spall, the director invests enough time in the sub-plot of their burgeoning romance.
The balance between bitter and sweet is about right, and the film deals with autism in a mostly-realistic fashion, showing how it can manifest itself in completely different ways in different people. Unfortunately X+Y suffers a little from a rushed ending (though writer and director thankfully realised that maths exams do not generally equal thrilling viewing and change tack as the Olympiad gets underway) but it has heart and its teenager performers acquit themselves particularly well.
Directed by: Morgan Matthews.
Written by: James Graham.
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen.
Editing: Peter Lambert.
Music: Martin Phipps.
Running Time: 111 minutes.