X+ Y- UK, 2014, directed by Morgan Matthews
Reviewed by Dr Khalid Ali, Screening Room Editor
Books, films and plays exploring the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have traditionally met with critical acclaim; ‘The Reason I Jump’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Reason_I_Jump), ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Curious_Incident_of_the_Dog_in_the_Night-Time), and ‘Rain Man’, USA, 1988, directed by Barry Levinson (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rain_Man) being notable examples.
‘X +Y’ is a film in the league of cinematic outings inspired by a true story exploring ASD. Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) is a young teenager who was diagnosed as a child with ASD. Following his father’s untimely death in a car accident, he rejects his mother Julie’s (Sally Hawkins) attempts to bond emotionally. Nathan’s Maths teacher in school, Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall) recognises Nathan’s gift for numbers, and offers to mentor him in the preparations to be a member of the UK team for the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). After being selected to represent the UK, a trip to Taiwan forces Nathan to deal with bullying, peer pressure, as well as the woes of first love with a fellow Maths prodigy Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). Nathan starts to reconsider his priorities in life. Is bonding with numbers and calculus theories more rewarding than bonding with humans? Can he transform his teacher’s bleak views on life? Can he reconnect with his mother?
The film is based on the life of Daniel Lightwing who represented the UK in the IMO in Slovenia in 2006, and whose story was first seen in the documentary film ‘Beautiful Young Minds’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beautiful_Young_Minds). Being a fiction film, ‘X+Y’ deviates from Daniel Lightwing’s life story in several key areas: the IMO was held in Slovenia, and not in Cambridge, Daniel’s father did not die in a car accident, and his Maths teacher was a woman, and not a man as seen in ‘X + Y’.
The film depicts several common features of ASD (social deficits, communication difficulties, and stereotyped behaviour). As the story unfolds, the viewer is led to empathise with Nathan’s mother in her frustration to understand what is going through his head; his refusal to hold her hand at his father’s funeral, his outburst after getting a Chinese take-away with an even number of prawn balls, and his harsh remarks that she is not ‘clever enough’. Obviously one film cannot cover all issues relating to the complexity of a family’s reactions to raising a child with ASD. However, ‘X + Y’ does go a long way towards shedding a light on analysing the feelings of guilt, as well as on the self-doubt that some parents experience. Such themes were similarly dissected in more detail in the UK TV series ‘The A word’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_A_Word)
Through imaginative use of light and sound, the film convincingly demonstrates the phenomenon of synaesthesia, where stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to an automatic and involuntary experience in a second sensory or cognitive pathway: Nathan’s mathematical puzzles are thus transformed in his brain into shapes of bright colours. His outstanding mathematical skills make him a ‘savant’; however this gift does not bring him happiness or contentment. Nathan’s isolation is felt even amongst his peers at the Maths camp in Taiwan. Having a gift for numbers can be a curse as well as a blessing – being totally absorbed in the world of numbers alienates the ‘synaesthetist’ child from his school peers – he/she is perceived as the school nerd/geek who most kids avoid and ridicule.
With its heart in the right place, the messages that ‘X+Y’ conveys – an understanding of people who are different, promoting tolerance and empathy – are welcome. However, it risks perpetuating the notion that children with ASD have to be exceptionally talented to be accepted by society, what Nathan’s companion in the Squad team describes as ‘If you (someone with ASD) have the gift, you will be called ‘gifted but weird’, but if you don’t have a gift, you will be labelled as ‘weird’ only’.
The viewer potentially struggles with too many plots – Mr Humphrey’s problems with MS, drug addiction, and social isolation warrants an entire film alone. Nathan’s story has a happy ending, and provides a crowd-pleasing moment, but it underestimates the harsh realities lived by children and families affected by ASD. Still, it is a welcome piece of film making that is both moving and brave in its depiction of what it feels like to be diagnosed with ASD.
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