The film ‘x + y’ is the story of Nathan Ellis, (played by Asa Butterfield) who is gifted at mathematics, but is so autistic that he cannot comprehend the hurt he causes to his mother, (played by Sally Hawkins) when he refuses physical contact or tells her that she is not clever enough to understand his maths problems. It sounds as if it should be a dull film, but it is a fascinating unpacking of family dynamics and love in all its forms.
Several years ago, I saw a BBC documentary about a group of British math whizzes who participate in a Maths Olympiad. Interestingly, Morgan Matthews was also the director of this doco called ‘Beautiful Young Minds’. Clearly Matthews has drawn on the characters and scenarios depicted in his earlier work, to deliver an authentic and engrossing storyline for ‘x + y’.
One memorable young man in the documentary could only show affection for his mother by patting her on the head. I remember that it distressed her that he could not tolerate any other form of touch, but she was also perversely proud of the fact that he patted her head. Nathan’s mother, Julie, is rather like this. She is always there for him and seeking the best for him, like arranging a maths tutor for him, sitting outside his exam room, ordering take-aways that correspond to prime numbers, yet he appreciates very little of what she does.
By contrast, his tutor, Mr Humphreys, played by Rafe Spall, is forthright, funny and foul-mouthed. He has MS and his body is the metaphorical equivalent of Nathan’s emotions. One of the key messages that the director delivers through this contrast is that Nathan is able to move beyond his autistic self-absorption because of a relationship he develops with another Math Olympiad contestant, played by Jo Yang. Mr Humphreys body never improves, though, and the only way he can move forward is to begin to explore his emotional turmoil through therapy.
Asa Butterfield is well cast as Nathan – he manages to capture the duality of a boy who can look both angelic and contrary at the same time. The use of sub-titles when he speaks Mandarin, helps to convey to the viewer that the world as we know it, is foreign to him, and whether he speaks his mother tongue, or a complex Asian language, it is all alien to him.
There are some delightful cameos in this strongly British film. Luke, the garrulously autistic ‘know-it-all’ and Isaac, the ‘normal’ boy provide interesting foils to Nathan. They all excel at Maths, yet approach it from such different places. Luke confesses that he dislikes maths, and only does it to mask his social ineptness; Isaac appears to be the quintessential Renaissance man, capable of impeccable intellectual acuity, but agile in navigating the currents of adolescent interactions.
The film overall is satisfying and thought-provoking. The second act which explores the private life of Julie and Humphreys is somewhat clunky, but the film stabilises when it returns to focus on Nathan in the third act.