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X+Y shows teens are teens, regardless of where they are 'on the spectrum'

A warmhearted, coming-of-age tale

Film Review X+Y plays a familiar tune on our heartstrings, echoing movies like Little Man Tate, Rain Man and Beautiful Mind in its portrayal of Nathan Ellis, a mathematical prodigy with mild autism struggling to navigate his way through social relationships.

Despite an early diagnosis of being “on the spectrum”, Nathan has a close emotional and physical relationship with his father, but when his dad dies in a car crash, he is unable to replicate that closeness with his grief-stricken and love-starved mother, Julie, played with grace, dignity and affecting sympathy by Sally Hawkins.

Nathan takes refuge in his love of patterns and maths, aided in huge part by his mum’s efforts to get her young son private lessons with secondary school teacher Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall).

Humphreys has his own troubles, having once taken part in – and, apparently, royally screwed up – the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) and suffering more and more from multiple sclerosis. By the time Nathan is ready to be played by Asa Butterfield as a teenager, he too wants to take part in the IMO and prove his worth.

The early scenes of the film hit all the typical notes of stories of autistic, gifted children – the long-suffering mother, the occasional humour of social awkwardness and the sympathy for those who try to reach Nathan on an emotional level, only to be unceremoniously rebuffed. But it’s in the training camp for the IMO in Taipei that the film really takes off.

For the first time, Nathan is among other children both like and unlike himself. There’s Isaac, the undisputed leader of the group, able to put aside his awkwardness and make himself popular, but only at the expense of others. Chief among his targets is Luke, an arrogant, irritating loud-mouth whose social difficulties are more severe than many of the others.

Director Morgan Matthews deftly leads the audience to side with Isaac against Luke’s many faults, particularly his lack of a sense of humour. But what at first glance seems like slightly bad-tempered ribbing soon descends into real bullying. Once that happens, Luke is revealed, not as the unfeeling robot he’s appeared to be, but as a heartbroken boy who’s utterly bewildered by his failure to connect with the others.

There are the tender moments between Nathan and his first real friend, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), and the sub-plot of the burgeoning relationship between Julie and Martin that’s so poignant, it almost takes over the whole film. And of course, there’s the emotional pay-off at the end.

But it’s in the interactions of the mathletes that the film really stands out.

X+Y focuses on the feelings that the boys, and one girl, are unable or unwilling to express, not on their feats of mathematical prowess. And on the fact that all these feelings – hurt, betrayal, jealousy, grief, love, attraction – are the same as any other group of teenagers going through the same things.

X+Y is not about how different people are once they’ve been diagnosed with autism or MS, but how they are the same and struggling to show it. ®

X+Y movie poster Title X+Y
Writer/Director Morgan Matthews
Cast Asa Butterfield, Jake Davies, Sally Hawkins, Alex Lawther, Eddie Marsan, Rafe Spall, Jo Yang
Release date 13 March (UK)
More info BBC Films site

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