Director Morgan Matthews has a considerable background in documentaries. One of them, 2007’s Beautiful Young Minds, focused on the selection process that a group of talented youngsters – many of them autistic – wen through for the International Mathematical Olympiad. It didn’t take great powers of arithmetic to add up that this would make for a great narrative feature – but crushingly, the end result, Matthew’s X+Y, doesn’t live up to its tremendous real-life inspiration.
Asa Butterfield plays Nathan, a teenage math prodigy on the spectrum, who quickly becomes obsessed with competing in the Mathematical Olympiad in Cambridge, the most prestigious competition he can imagine. Egging him on is his tutor Marcus (Rafe Spall) and his single mum Julie (Sally Hawkins) – but when he travels to Taiwan to train with other like-minded young hopefuls, his socially awkward disposition keeps him from making friends, and perhaps even getting on the Olympiad team.
X+Y has every bearing of a sports movie, but doesn’t stick to montages or inspirational speeches to move it along. Instead, we’re treated to well-written characters who help each other achieve their dreams, whether that be Nathan’s visions of arithmetic glory, Marcus’ battle over his damning multiple sclerosis, or Julie becoming the mother she wants to be. But that’s where the strengths stop for Matthews’ prosaic film: there is almost nothing to mark this out from a hundred other outsider-versus-the-world stories, and although there are definitely emotional blows to be felt (and a genuine vein of sharp humour to frequently go with it, in no small part to Spall), this represents cinema as nothing more than an antiseptic vessel for a tale that would probably work better on the page than on screen. But most problematic of all is the film’s depiction of autism, which treats it with a fairytale sheen, especially toward the film’s conclusion. But it’s not just this gifted young boy’s emotions that are neglected: ours are, too.