I hate math. One of the best things about this film is that it’s not really about math.
X + Y tells the story of Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a young boy with autism and synaesthesia who loses his father in a traumatic car crash, and, as the title suggests, is extraordinarily gifted at mathematics. The film loosely follows his journey to compete in the International Mathematics Olympiad (yes, that exists) but is more interested in how Nathan’s autism affects his relationships and perception of the world. As Nathan puts it: “I have lots of things to say, I’m just afraid to say them”, and X + Y aims to give him a voice. It’s the latest in a small spate of film releases interested in exploring illness or difference through textuality, because of film’s inherent ability to help audiences experience the unfamiliar.
X + Y is interesting in this regard. It has none of the bluntness of Still Alice, none of the triteness of The Imitation Game, and ends up somewhere in the “sensitive portrayal” category. The key problem is that the filmmakers didn’t keep it simple—here are some of the messages they tried to use the film as a vehicle for:
- Autism is hard for families to deal with.
- You’re a dick if you bully people with autism (yes).
- Inter-racial relationships are great.
- Actually, relationships in general are great. Especially for young teenagers who will probably share a bed in a completely innocent way.
- A strangely targeted dig at British-Chinese relations.
- Car crashes! Highly traumatic!
- Self-harm happens (this is never really addressed).
- “Gifted people” should use their gifts, not play video games all day.
Apologies, I’m becoming a little sardonic. But you see how this can become a problem. It means that instead of letting Nathan’s honest perspective shine, X + Y ends up in a bit of a mess trying to close up all the thematic threads. Along with this, director Morgan Matthews tries to slot in a bunch of traumatic memory sequences—it’s too much.
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If we leave all these divergent directions aside and focus on the main narrative, X + Y is a lovely, honest little film. It centres on character development, rather than relying on the “competition” as a narrative driver. The cast perform well, and we can develop significant empathy for the characters and their various struggles.
I’d prefer the characters to progress individually, rather than so much in terms of relationships: for example, Nathan’s mother and father are directly oppositional as “terrible” and “perfect” parental figures, but at least they’re genuinely likeable. Nathan’s teacher (Rafe Spall) is a particular highlight, with his arsenal of dad jokes. In fact, if the characters were given a little more room to shine individually, it would really make the film. As it stands, X + Y is obsessed with heterosexual pairings, almost in a mathematical way. Just because the teacher and mother are both damaged, it doesn’t follow that they need each other. And who wants to see a clumsy love story between two twelve-year-olds that’s not Moonrise Kingdom? Matthews allows the freshness of the film to dissipate by resorting to these pairings, and the explanation that Nathan’s mother (Sally Hawkins) gives about love, “when somebody loves you, it adds value to you”, was rather cringeworthy: actual self-esteem, anyone?
I’ve probably been far too negative so far: on the plus side for the film, there’s the joy of “muggles” being used as a descriptor with no further explanation. There’s the heartfelt simplicity of a Keaton Henson soundtrack. And there’s also style. Awkward flashbacks aside, the film has a really tidy visual aesthetic which may stem from Matthews’ documentary roots. As with many first-time feature directors, he wants to play with how childlike perception can be conveyed. The fun of this approach is at least quadrupled by Nathan’s synaesthesia, which is expressed through sequencing in shots and consistent use of patterning in the mise-en-scene. I loved this aspect of the film—it’s not overbearing and doesn’t force us into Nathan’s position, but invites us to engage with a different way of seeing the world that may trigger reminders outside the cinema’s walls. These invitations into Nathan’s world mean that everyday life ends up looking a little banal in comparison: for me, that’s part of the beauty of cinema.