Cast: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann
Director: Morgan Matthews
Writer: James Graham
Before embarking on this film Morgan Matthews directed another film called Beautiful Young Minds, a documentary that followed the British team that competed in the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad. While making this film he saw that many of the young mathematicians he filmed had varying forms of autism. He saw how they would often struggle to understand and make sense of other people and how mathematics was able to provide them with the order and stability that they sought. So moved and inspired was by these boys that he set out to make a film based on their experiences. X+Y is the result of this ambition.
The film is centred on Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) who is diagnosed with autism at the age of 6. Even at such a young age he is shown to possess an advanced mind but displays a clear incomprehension towards people and the world around him. He is able to make some sense of the world with the aid of his father Michael (Martin McCann) until he loses him in a car accident. After that happens nothing makes sense anymore. The only place where he can find any sense of order is in the study of mathematics and so his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) enlists a special maths teacher called Humphreys (Rafe Spall) to tutor him. Julie is a mother who was never prepared to have a child who requires special care and struggles to form any kind of a reciprocal bond between them. She constantly tries to show her love to Nathan and tries to become more involved in his life but receives only puzzlement and indifference in return. Humphreys is a former mathematical prodigy who also competed in the Olympiad. Today he suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and resents himself for not having lived up to his potential. He sees much of himself in Nathan and does not want him to end up like himself.
When Nathan reaches the age of 16 he decides to try out for the International Mathematical Olympiad. He lacks self-confidence and is at an age where it is difficult to be socially awkward, and so he relies heavily on Humphreys who is effectively his one and only friend. Mathematics is the one thing that Nathan truly enjoys and so he pushes himself to be the best at it. He does well in his test and is chosen to join a training program in Taiwan where he will have the chance to qualify for Great Britain’s team. He is sent there along with eleven other British pupils who, like Nathan, are all smart but, unlike Nathan, most of them are able to get along socially. This leads Nathan to experience a sense of alienation and inadequacy. His father had often reassured him that his condition was a little like having super powers, and so it is discouraging for Nathan to find himself in a place where he is “depressingly average”. Not only does he struggle to distinguish and to express himself, he also finds it difficult to interpret his own feelings when he is partnered up with the pretty Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). The film’s overarching story is about Nathan’s quest to come out of his shell and to learn to understand his own thoughts and feelings.
Asa Butterfield does a convincingly good job of playing Nathan and of portraying the symptoms of autism. Nathan is ultimately a young man who only wants order and balance in his life but loses them when he loses his father. He is unable to understand the true depths of his father’s loss or the profound effect it has had on him. Instead he tries to compensate for his absence with the logical stability found in mathematics, inadvertently neglecting his mother in the process. When he leaves his comfort zone he is forced to confront his feelings. The film draws an interesting parallel to Nathan through the character of Luke Shelton (Jake Davies), another autistic student who estranges the rest of the team through his hostile anti-social behaviour. Luke is able to understand that people tend not to like him but is unable to figure out how to win them over. Like Nathan he has turned to mathematics as a source of comfort and reassurance. When Nathan sees how volatile Luke can become, it adds some perspective to his own life and struggles.
Matthews has stated that it was not his intention to make a film about autism, but about the experiences of one boy on the spectrum. What results is a touching film about the challenges and struggles faced by Nathan in his journey to understand the world and himself. He comes to learn that not everything in the world makes sense nor can they all be broken down to ones and zeros. Instead of his head he must learn to rely on his heart in order to understand the natures of love, grief, and joy.