0262 | X+Y

1de50dbf-8b97-42bb-b6f1-c6265bd5f87c-620x372This 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.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 111 minutes.
Year: 2015.
Rating: 6.4

Comments 14

  1. Tom April 6, 2015

    I think this *might* be the second ever review I’ve read on this and the other was decidedly more negative. But both reviews have pointed out how they approach autism in an interesting way. And color me interested for any film that deals with mental illness of some description. I think this is a movie for me on that basis alone.

    Good one Stu!

    • Stu April 7, 2015

      Cheers Tom. It’s not without faults, but ultimately I felt quite charitable towards it as I think it’s a well-meaning film. It does offer a more realistic and considered approach towards autism than you usually get in films (my wife deals with autistic kids a lot with her job and said as much herself, although obviously every parent or child’s experience will be different and some people may find it deals with certain things a little too neatly). Worth a go if you’re interested in the subject matter.

  2. ruth April 6, 2015

    Y’know, I was intrigued by this initially and it’s playing at a local film fest next week. I think the idea is intriguing, so I might still give it a watch.

    • Stu April 7, 2015

      Hey Ruth, thanks for reading! I would say it’s worth seeing if you’re interested in the subject matter; there’s a nice strand of humour through it and the romantic side of the story is sweet-natured. I don’t think it’s a great film but there were things that I liked about it, especially Asa Butterfield’s performance.

  3. Jordan Dodd April 6, 2015

    I am keen to see this also. Apparently autism is very similar to the type of epilepsy I have so I definetely want to give it a shot. Great write up, good to read that it depicts the unpredictability of autism well

    • Stu April 7, 2015

      Hey Jordan, thanks very much. I’d be interested to read your take on it if that’s the case. It looks to me as if the director, writer and actors have a good understanding of how autism manifests itself in different ways, as well as the pressures on parents of autistic children, but I don’t know a great amount about it. I haven’t seen many films with autistic characters to compare it with, but one that springs to mind is Mercury Rising. This is a million miles apart!

      • Jordan Dodd April 7, 2015

        I have never heard of that one, ‘Mecury’. Wasn’t Crowe in A Beautiful Mind autistic? Other than that I can’t think of much. Its good to see it shows how hard it can get for parents, this opens down here tomorrow i’m seein it 😀

      • Jordan Dodd April 14, 2015

        Hey man, thanks for the heads up! I had read mixed things about this movie, but I just saw it and its very accurate, as well as funny in a not too sentimental way. The tutor character was a crack-up, and the ending I found quite touching. You were spot on in how it depicts the trouble for parents 🙂

        • Stu April 15, 2015

          Nice one, good that you got to see it in the end. I’ll head over to read your review.

  4. Writer Loves Movies April 13, 2015

    Fair review Stu. I enjoyed this one but parts of it were a little too neat as you say (namely the turnaround in Nathan’s relationship with his mum). I liked Spall and Hawkins here though – they managed to stay the right side of schmaltzy.

    • Stu April 13, 2015

      Thanks Natalie. That all happens a little too conveniently and quickly at the end, doesn’t it? But I guess I can look the other way in the name of drama! I had a few moments where I doubted Spall and Hawkins, but I liked the way the characters’ relationship played out (particularly the un-confident dual use of ‘sorry’ about 10 times when they got together for the first time!)

  5. Todd Benefiel May 1, 2015

    You are now my official go-to source for films I’ve never heard of, but want to see because of your reviews! With this one, I think I’d most enjoy the romance between the two young lead characters, especially after seeing the above photo…hopefully the rest of that story is just as fun.

    • Stu May 1, 2015

      I think this has a different title in the US, so that might be why you haven’t heard of it. I can’t remember the name of it though; if only someone would invent an Internet site, or “search engine” that would tell me such things! But we can only dream of such wonders. Worth a watch!

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