X+Y is a British film from BBC Films that follows the story of Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a teenage mathematics prodigy who is more comfortable dealing with numbers than he is with people. When he is selected to represent Great Britain on the International Mathematical Olympiad, he is forced to travel to Taiwan. As pressure to perform in the tournament grows and he finds an unlikely source of romance in Zhang Mai (Jo Yang), he soon finds that being out of his comfort zone is the starting point for a challenging journey of self-realisation.
One thing I was worried about as I sat there in the cinema waiting for it to start, was how they were going to portray autism. Inevitably we’re going to compare lead character Nathan to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, probably the two most iconic on-screen portrayals of people on the autistic spectrum. Unfortunately for sufferers of autism, this drastically sells the condition short to people who aren’t overly aware of it. Autism is a condition that affects those close to someone on the spectrum as much as the person themselves, and to assume that they will simply be a bit awkward around people and good at maths is doing it a misjustice. Many sufferers find comfort in the strict rules set out in maths – it’s an emotionless interest. However, others find the same solace in a regimented interpretation of music, with its repetitive patterns and melodies and set mathematics behind complimentary frequencies of notes. Others become obsessive over lists and facts, whatever the topic might be. Others just don’t. There are mild forms of autism and severe forms, which is why diagnosis can be tricky as early signs can’t be placed on the spectrum by someone unfamiliar with the condition.
So it’s unfortunate that autism has been portrayed on screen by means of a maths genius yet again, even though the director has previous work on autism (2008’s Beautiful Young Minds), which covers it in a more factual manner. However, X+Y is by no means just a light-hearted walk in the park and I enjoyed the fact a lot of time was spent with Nathan’s mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) as she came to terms with the loss of a close relative with no emotional support from her son. This was an important portion of the film that gave the right emphasis to the right areas and should be applauded.
I felt Butterfield’s portrayal of a child suffering from autism was very accurate, and I felt the frustration seeping through his inability to understand others. He has become a very accomplished actor throughout the three or four major films he has been part of so far, and as long as he keeps his feet on the ground for a couple more years he will continue to be successful for a long time.
Another great performance was from Jake Davies as Luke, whose character was a much more acute sufferer of autism. One scene involving a dead prawn stuck out for me and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from him in the future.
The comradery of the maths students didn’t ring true for me. From first hand experience (I partook in mathematics competitions as a child, to some success), these competitions are far from a sociable affair, with most children very much “in the zone” and either unable or unwilling to communicate with their peers. It was a case of get in, do maths, win. Anything else was just unneccesary. So when there’s laughing and joking and, most notably, a cringeworthy rap session (including an awful rhymical recitation of Pi), I just thought back to the suits and classical music I had to endure and wondered how much it really could have changed.
I felt let down by the end. I’m not going to go into details as the film is yet to be released, but it just didn’t ring true to me and seemed to undo a lot of hard work they’d put in earlier in the film in a manner that suggests to me they got lost with the message they wanted to send out. I’ll let you make your own mind up on that one.
Overall it’s a very accomplished film and has many enjoyable points, but I didn’t feel it quite fulfilled its potential.
X+Y is released at UK cinemas on 13th March 2015.