X + Y - review

by Graham Adams / 27 March, 2015
Stories about genius seem to be particularly appealing when they involve some sort of disability. It’s as if they reassure us that brilliance is not an automatic ticket to happiness, whether it is physicist Stephen Hawking’s motor neuron disease (The Theory of Everything) or mathematician John Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia (A Beautiful Mind).

In X+Y, Nathan Ellis is “on the spectrum”, which is the current euphemism for those suffering from milder forms of autism. He’s not incapacitated, he’s just “weird”, as another boy describes those with Asberger’s. Nathan is repulsed by physical interactions (including handshakes), is painfully self-conscious, and he has little or no em­pathy for anyone else’s suffering, including that of his mother. Oh, and he’s also a pain in the arse: when he has Chinese takeaways, the number of chicken balls has to be a prime number, such as seven.

But he’s also gifted enough to try out for the International Mathematics Olympiad at a nerdy numbers camp in Taiwan. Fortunately for him, some of his new colleagues are less socially inept than he and they gradually bring him out of his shell — particularly a young woman who kindles in him unexpected feelings of love, which he seems to have experienced previously only for his father before he died in a car crash.

The sudden flowering of feeling in this emotionally closed-in lad may seem a little unlikely and it’s true that the film has formulaic aspects. Nevertheless, the characterisation and acting (including both Edward Baker-Close as the young Nathan and Asa Butterfield as the teenager) are of such a high standard these flaws are easily forgiven.

Best of all, the screenwriters haven’t given in to the easy option of a totally triumphant ending. And they don’t allow Nathan’s story to be over­shadowed by the romance blossoming between his tutor, Martin (Rafe Spall), who is facing a dismal future as his multiple sclerosis progresses, and Nathan’s mother, Julie (played by the irrepressibly daffy Sally Hawkins), who has been starved of love and affection ever since her husband died and she has devoted herself to her strange, brilliant son.

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