X+Y finds that love is the solution to every problem
Uplifting British dramedies are a breed of film I'm rather fond of. Whether it's exemplars like Calendar Girls or Pride – or even the slightly less brilliant The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or One Chance – there's something about this rather concise subgenre that leaves you feeling validated as you leave the theatre, regardless of the quality of the film.
Someone forgot to mention this to X+Y, a film that seemingly wants to be a part of this little club but forgets to be either uplifting or comedic for the vast majority of its runtime. It's a rather dull slog that's not without merit, but doesn't provide many compelling reasons to warrant occupying your time.
X+Y tells the story of Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a kid on the autism spectrum who witnessed the death of his father – his closest ally – at a young age. He finds solace in the constant of mathematics under the instruction of eccentric tutor Martin (Rafe Spall), while Nathan’s mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) struggles with being constantly disconnected from her teenaged son. Nathan is thrown out of his comfort zone when he’s selected to represent the UK at the International Mathematical Olympiad, and finds an unexpected connection with friendly competitor Zhang Mei (Jo Wang).
If there’s one thing that X+Y gets very right, it would be its unflatteringly frank depiction of life on the autism spectrum. Resisting the opportunity to romanticise the unique abilities of autistic people – something that happens all too often in their stories as told on screen – we're witness to Nathan's unsympathetic behaviour towards those closest to him, and the aggressive stimming of his Olympiad teammate. It's a realistic and occasionally confronting depiction that seems transplanted from a much better film.
But alas, there's not much else going for it. The film is a mess tonally, attempting to strike a balance between its bleak subject matter and lighthearted approach and never once succeeding. Director Morgan Matthews – who previously made a documentary about International Mathematical Olympiad participants – has an obvious fondness for his subject matter, but X+Y is in dire need of some comic relief to counteract all the tragedy. That's something Rafe Spall and Eddie Marsan are ostensibly there to provide, but the film's screenplay rarely gives them the tools to be consistently or particularly funny. The cast as a whole turn in earnest and reasonably well-executed performances, but the needlessly dire circumstances that Matthews throws at them are at odds with the whimsical tone he sets out to achieve.
Just about everything in X+Y is unfortunately shallow – nothing more so than when the film explores the hopeful flirtations of Zhang Mei and classmate Rebecca towards Nathan, and Julie and Martin's burgeoning romance despite his struggle with debilitating multiple sclerosis. Love fixes everything! There's nothing to worry about now, because they've all found love! It's a maddeningly simplistic avenue to take when the film presents such a nuanced depiction of autism.
X+Y is an odd film – it gets plenty of things wrong, but one thing very right. It seems destined to be forgotten, but should have been much more.