’X+Y’ is a movie released in March 2015 directed by Morgan Matthews and starring Asa Butterfield (previous credits include ‘Hugo’ and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’) as Nathan, a child with autism. The film sets up Nathan’s autism as a ‘disability’ diagnosed at the beginning of the film by a medical practitioner and is characterised through the young boy having unique and special talents (in this case an unusual mathematical ability). This ‘ability’ was a common thread throughout as Nathan was selected to have additional maths tuition outside of his mainstream schooling to explore his abilities further. He was placed with an unorthodox maths tutor who had previously been considered a math genius but was struggling to come to terms with his MS which had made him cynical and negative towards life. The film shows how Nathan’s father, who had a good and close relationship with his son, was killed in a tragic car accident whilst Nathan was with him. It is this memory which reappears throughout and it becomes apparent that this unresolved grief taints his relationship with his mum and making secure attachments generally – not unlike any other teenage boy in the same situation. His mum struggles to connect with him on an emotional level as he pushes her affection away but she remains strong for him and does not give up trying. Nathan is sent on a maths training camp to Taiwan with a group of other maths prodigies to train for the Mathematics Olympiad and the story shows him experiencing life in another country over the course of two weeks. The only person he chooses to contact in that time is his math tutor and not his mother. The group are all paired with a Chinese pupil and he is paired with a Chinese girl during his stay so they can study together. They form a good friendship and he manages to converse partially in Chinese with her, which he has learnt from studying a language book. She remarks how he speaks more in Chinese to her than he does English. The day of the Olympiad in Cambridge arrives and Nathan is the final member of a group of six students chosen to represent the UK. There was another British student on the camp in Taiwan who he just overtook in the selection test who was also diagnosed as being on the spectrum – he dealt with the failure by resorting to self harm which he said was not the first time. It struck me at that point that the focus was so much on their maths ability that the personal welfare of the students was neglected. This boy who self harmed had also experienced verbal bullying from his peers due to his eccentric and different behaviours. Interestingly the two boys with ‘autism’ were put together as room mates for their stay in Taiwan. The night before the competition in the UK his Chinese friend asks if she can share his single room and there is obvious affection between them which he is unsure about initially and afraid to succumb to. However, they find comfort in holding hands and just being together. This acceptance of attachment to another person triggers his repressed memories of his father. On the day of the competition they are found in the same room by the girl’s uncle who she argues with, tries to explain the pressure she feels under to succeed and then decides to leave. This causes Nathan to feel loss all over again. The repressed grief takes over and he is unable to focus on the maths paper in front of him. He runs from the building to find solace in eating in a Chinese restaurant, something he did with his father, and when his mother catches up with him they have their first deep and meaningful conversation about why his father died and she does this by using mathematical terms as an analogy for the tragedy. This is the breakthrough moment in their relationship and for the first time Nathan holds his mother’s hand. She also recognises his feelings for the Chinese girl and together they go to find her. The film explores issues of attachment and belonging alongside the emotional turmoil of teenage emotions which are the same no matter whether you have a ‘diagnosis’. It tried to make the point that people on the ‘Spectrum’ may be unique but there are also people without a diagnosis who have their own unique talents and abilities and when put together the autism in itself is an aside issue. People with disability can enjoy the same experiences as everyone else and experience the same feelings – there are many socially awkward teens who have the same issues and deal with it in their own way. The film attempted to equalise these teens by allowing them the same experiences and opportunities with no special treatment, although I still question why welfare becomes overlooked for all of the students. The main focus was winning the prize but sometimes there are more important things in life and this was recognised by those closest to Nathan – his mother and his maths tutor – who allowed him the freedom to make his own choices in life.
Louise Jones – March 2015