‘‘ON the spectrum’’ – meaning the spectrum between Asperger’s syndrome and autism – must be one of medicine’s most misused terms. These days, it’s routinely invoked by amateur diagnosticians to describe foot-in-the-mouth politicians or a boss who’s never heard of common sense.
Nathan (Asa Butterfield), the teenage hero of X+Y, is the real thing. Diagnosed in early childhood, he has a neuro-developmental disorder which brings with it a fascination with numbers, colours and patterns of light. These preoccupations have turned him into a mathematical whiz.
On the downside, he doesn’t like to be touched, can’t tolerate change and can’t eat his favourite Chinese food – prawn balls – unless the serving of prawn balls in the bowl adds up to a prime number.
We’ve seen this syndrome on screen before, most famously in Dustin Hoffman’s embodiment of the autistic Raymond in Rain Man. But throughout Barry Levinson’s film, Raymond remains a mystery.
We’re looking at him through the restless, wondering gaze of his conman brother. British director Morgan Matthews takes a more enlightened approach. He does his imaginative best to have us feel what Nathan’s feeling.
He was inspired to make X+Y after directing a documentary about the International Maths Olympiad, an experience which made him intensely aware of the link between certain neuro-developmental conditions and a genius for numbers. Nathan, too, is put on a shortlist for the Olympiad and suddenly has to get used to being neither the brightest mathematician in the room nor the weirdest.
Butterfield is pale and lanky with an intent, wide-eyed expression, as if he’s tuned in to music that no one else can hear, which is often the case. After a fellow Olympiad candidate points up the close relationship between music and maths, the lights, numbers and sounds come together in his head and he begins to hear music everywhere he goes.
His relationship with other human beings is more difficult. His father, who might have eased his way, dies in the car accident which opens the film and Nathan, who is five at the time, never recovers. By then, he’s already decided that his mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins), is not as smart as he is; in other words, not worth talking to. Much as this hurts her, she responds with love and the kind of forbearance we’ve come to expect from Hawkins. Fortunately, she also has a gift for bittersweet comedy and has an equally adept partner in Rafe Spall as Nathan’s maths teacher.
All of this is infused with such a strong whiff of reality that the hastily engineered upbeat ending seems contrived and unconvincing in contrast. Yet Hawkins and Butterworth make such poignant work of it that Matthews almost gets away with it. It’s a delicate and perceptive film.
– Sandra Hall