Navigating life, school and love can be tricky even for the best of us but for those with mental and social disorders it can be even harder. X+Y takes us into the fictional world of a teenage math prodigy who is diagnosed on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum at a young age and his journey to competing at the International Mathematical Olympiad.
At a young age Nathan Ellis (Edward Baker-Close) is diagnosed with autism but with a gift for mathematics and recognising patterns. His father Michael (Martin McCann) manages to bond with Nathan, whilst his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) struggles to make a connection. But when Michael dies in a car accident, Nathan seems irreversibly traumatised and shuts Julie out. Recognising her struggle to not only parent but connect with her gifted son, Julie takes Nathan to be tutored by Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall) a sardonic but sympathetic teacher, who becomes both mentor and father figure. We then return to Nathan now a teenager (Asa Butterfield), who has focused his attentions on trying to qualify for the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), with the help of teacher Humphreys, who also once competed but due to his own personal demons and suffering from Multiple Sclerosis missed out on his chance at math glory. After successfully making the British team, Nathan travels to Taipei to see if he’ll be shortlisted for the games but suddenly becomes aware that he’s no longer the smartest or weirdest in the room. To add to Nathan’s awkwardness he develops a burgeoning relationship with his “buddy” Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) a member of the Chinese IMO team that they’re competing against.
Director Morgan Matthews has lifted a lot of the basis of this film from his own 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds which is also about gifted young schoolkids. However the focus here is less on the maths and more about Nathan’s journey from being emotionally isolated to understanding and allowing people who care about him to enter into his space. Asa Butterfield is exceptional as the teenage Nathan who struggles to allow people into both his physical space (he doesn’t like to hold or shake hands) or his mental space (doesn’t think his mum is as smart as him). He doesn’t hold back with his less endearing qualities which is something often over-looked in films that touch on the subject, but it’s never so much that his character is unlikeable.
Rafe Spall’s teacher Humphreys though is an absolute treasure, providing enough comic relief with his dry wit and jokes that rub against Butterfield’s hard line Nathan. Whilst Sally Hawkins is beautifully understated as the always struggling Julie with a never ending well of patience, a woman who just wants to feel a connection to her child. There is a wonderfully subtle backstory to Spall’s Humphrey’s that sheds light on his present state, and sadly adorable interactions between him and Julie are cut short in favour of focusing on Nathan’s journey.
The film is visually wonderful too thanks to cinematographer Danny Cohen. They make mention of synesthesia relating to Nathan’s diagnosis, a condition that can result in people “hearing” colours. So there’s plenty of beautiful colourful lens flare shots to try and make us understand how Nathan experiences the world around him. This is complemented by some wonderful score music that also adds to the atmosphere.
It’s easy to see similarities to Rain Man or A Beautiful Mind or even the more recent The Theory of Everything in this film. All feature gifted people struggling with disabilities, however X+Y looks at a much younger protagonist, someone who is still in formative years and trying to come to terms with all these experiences. The only issue I had was the miraculous lightbulb like moment that Nathan has near the end of the film that sees him suddenly accepting of his mother’s affection and physical contact and willingness to want to go after his young love, Zhang Mei. People struggling with mental disorders can’t just switch them on and off, and neuroses like those depicted don’t just disappear. It felt a little too stamped on as a necessary happy-ending and a hasty way of wrapping the film up. Aside from this though X+Y manages to tackle the depiction of young people struggling with neuro-developmental disorders with a gentleness and realism that gives the film an endearing heart.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 111 minutes
X+Y is screening in Australian cinemas from 9th April 2015 through Pinnacle Films