It is well known that the world looks different for a boy with a form of Asperger’s. The main character in “X + Y”, teenage Nathan, is also brilliant with numbers and fascinated by colors and patterns. And yes, socially he has a user manual. Don’t touch him, change too much, and only feed him Chinese shrimp balls if that number is prime.
Still, director Morgan Matthews manages to avoid clichés in his first feature film and paints an honest and loving portrait of Nathan (Asa Butterfield, ‘Hugo’ and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’) and his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins,’ Happy- Go-Lucky ‘). The father of the family died when Nathan was still young. Nathan had a good relationship with him: he entertained him, let him be a child in his own way. Julie tries, but she is unable to break through that barrier. When she wants to delve into his interest in numbers, he says coldly, “You’re too stupid for that.”
The great thing is that Matthews does not portray Nathan as an emotionless being. He can make contact and show feelings, but only in the right context. His math teacher Martin (Rafe Spall), for example, knows how to find the right formula. He introduces Nathan to the Mathematics Olympiad, the most important math competition for students in the world. He qualifies for the pre-squad for the British team, where he faces a strange world. Because among all those peculiar math geniuses, he is suddenly not unusual or smart. “Normally I am the weird one,” he says to a teammate.
It would have been easy to provide “X + Y” with Hollywood sentiments or an easy-going plot in which the Olympiad makes his whole life better. It is not such a film. Because in addition to Asperger’s syndrome and math, the “X + Y” is about relationships. Of course the relationship with his father, mother and Martin, but also: how should he deal with his strange and less strange teammates? And are those feelings he cherishes for the Chinese girl he is paired with during math training? The experiences during the “training camp” in Taiwan do not so much make him more social, but mainly confuse him.
Matthews inspired his film in part on his own Olympiad documentary “Beautiful Young Minds”, and perhaps that’s why this part feels so natural. In any case, his hand as a documentary maker is visible throughout the film, thanks to the harsh light, calm film images and loose ends that are not always tied together. Some things are simply unfinished, he seems to say. It leads to a high sense of reality, but cannot prevent the end from feeling rushed.
The fact that “X + Y” has become such a beautiful film is certainly also due to the young Butterfield. With calm poses he turns Nathan into a boy who sometimes looks shy, sometimes turned inward. That subtle difference makes Nathan a human instead of someone with Asperger’s. Hawkins is also moving in her role, which she fulfills in a very minimalist way. Sometimes she only seems to act with her head: a nod here, a sloping head there and of course her large expressive eyes.
Against all that subtle acting, Rafe Spall and Eddie Marshall, who plays the coach of the math team, provide the necessary humor, rudeness and lightheartedness. That makes “X + Y” lighter viewing cost than you would expect based on the subject. And that too can be praised in Matthew’s approach.