X+Y sits in an unusual place. On one hand, it’s a sweet look at a young maths prodigy trying to find a place in the world. He goes to the International Mathematical Olympiad, meets a girl and discovers that there is more to the world than numbers. On the other hand, that same prodigy registers on the spectrum and just doesn’t understand how people work. His father died at a young age and his mother struggles to connect with him. His mentor suffers from multiple sclerosis and he discovers that even in the world of the super smart, bullying is still a major issue.
Director Morgan Matthews comes into this film following his documentary Beautiful Young Minds, which focused on the real International Mathematical Olympiad, and you can tell his experience from that has aided him. His direction of Asa Butterfield, who plays the aforementioned prodigy, Nathan, particularly feels like something which comes from experience. I can’t pretend I have much history of dealing with people on the spectrum, but to my eye, he does a great job of playing how uncomfortable the world make him. Everything from facial tics to hand movements, scream of a person outside of their comfort zone and struggling to deal with that.
He’s also surrounded by a cast very much playing to their strengths. Sally Hawkins as his beat down mother, who appears to be constantly carrying the weight of the world on her back, is very much acting to type. But despite that, is still as wonderful as ever. While Rafe Spall’s Humphreys, who is Nathan’s mentor, is fantastically toxic, as the twisted and bitter ex prodigy, who has managed to see through all the bullshit surrounding these events and seems truly to just care about Nathan finding happiness. Finally, Eddie Marsan completes a great cast, as the enthusiastic but slightly misguided head of the British team.
It all comes together in a film, which while on the whole incredibly simple (you could probably take a fair guess at what was going to happen from the opening scenes), is very enjoyable. It’s sweet and saccharine and it will carry you along on a wave of good feeling, except every now and then it doesn’t. Because every now and then, this film points at a darker underbelly. A darkness that takes a look at just how hard the lives of the families of people suffering from autism can be and how it’s sufferers can be bullied and turned on, even by their supposedly super intelligent peers. Now, whether this is the film to explore that world is a different story. It’s a dark subject matter and one that is definitely worthy of exploration, but maybe not on this particular stage. X+Y instead becomes young love story, as Nathan meets Zhang Mei, a Chinese competitor at the event, and discovers that not all human contact need be scary.
However, this contrast in stories does make the film feel a little bit confused. It touches on these dark subjects but then seems to run away from them, never seeming comfortable with them. It means what we finally end up with is a sweet diversion, nothing special, but well worthy of a watch. However, as you come out of the cinema, you can’t help but wondering where the rest of that story is. Is the dark underbelly of this movie a story just waiting to be told?