Strong performances drive X + Y

Apr 09, 2015

We’re seeing a spate of films this year in which the protagonist is afflicted in a way most of us would consider profoundly disabling.

Oscars were recently awarded for portrayals of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (Julianne Moore, in Still Alice) and motor neurone disease (Eddie Redmayne, in The Theory of Everything). Audiences have also recently been shown a depiction of bipolar disorder (Infinitely Polar Bear) and watched a young psychiatrist have a psychological breakdown and join a cult (One Eyed Girl).

This month, X + Y depicts a teenage maths wiz struggling with the social dimensions of Asperger’s syndrome.

The point to all these movies is that the protagonist’s humanity triumphs over their perceived limitations, as they adapt to and even accept life with their particular challenges. Hopefully, these storylines are part of a new societal openness.

X + Y is a worthy addition to the genre. Teenage actor Asa Butterfield is engrossing in the role of Nathan Ellis, a brilliant boy with a non-communicative social disorder who scrapes into the British team competing at the International Mathematical Olympiad. Throughout the movie, the emotional conflicts flickering on Nathan’s face tell much of the story.

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Along the way, he meets equally intelligent maths stars with their own social challenges. Nathan also finds himself attracted to a girl from China’s team, triggering long-suppressed feelings for his father, killed in a car smash when Nathan was a child.

Sally Hawkins, as Nathan’s mum, continues her recent fine form from Made In Dagenham and Blue Jasmine. Here, she’s lonely for adult companionship and palpably struggling to relate to her catatonically shy, emotionally remote son.

I’ve been a fan of Rafe Spall (son of Timothy) since I saw his deeply sinister performance in Shadow Line, an English TV crime thriller. In X + Y, he’s engaging as Nathan’s maths tutor, Mr Humphreys, who coincidentally suffers from multiple sclerosis and was also, in his day, selected for the Mathematical Olympiad but dropped out.

Guess which of Humphreys’ life challenges is more socially problematic, and which provides an avenue for growth?


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