Nathan Ellis. English teenager, maths wunderkind, autistic.
As we learn during X+Y’s introduction, Nathan and his parents find early on that he is on the autism spectrum.With a sensitivity to light and a savant-level understanding of maths, Nathan’s father takes a special interest in his son’s “super powers”. When he is senselessly killed in a automobile accident, Nathan is left with his mind and his mother. Julie, played by Sally Hawkins, is a fantastic advocate for Nathan, yet she has spent years trying to to connect with her seemingly unreachable son. As one might expect, Nathan’s autistic tendencies leave him without the social graces of someone deemed more neurologically “normal”.
He’s shy and cannot stand being touched, noise and light he finds overwhelming to process, and the socially acceptable methods of communicating are unnecessary in his eyes. His brain, though not emotionally inclined, supersedes that of his peers’ mathematical comprehensions, and he is placed with a tutor, Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall), who has the ability to foster Nathan’s gift. Here Asa Butterfield takes over Nathan’s character from Edward Baker-Close. The continuity of both actors’ ice blue eyes makes the suspension of disbelief easy and conveniently believable.
Nathan is older now, in his early teens when he proceeds to be selected for a maths camp in Taipei, Taiwan, which will determine the International Mathematics Olympiad team for Great Britain. At the camp, Nathan meets other English mathematical geniuses, along with a young Chinese math prodigy named Zhang Mei, who slowly pulls Nathan out of his “turtle boy” shell. She is the catalyst, transforming Nathan’s lack of understanding of his own feelings into feeling compassion for someone else.
The subject matter is less important in this film than the characters. We are given just enough about maths to keep the plot moving forward, and for a general viewing audience, that storyline sits well. As someone with experience in dealing with autistic individuals, I can attest to their love of numbers, patterns, and continuity in daily life. The fact that Julie faithfully makes the same toast for Nathan each morning, cut diagonally into four pieces with the crusts painstakingly sliced away, proves her commitment to seeing her son’s contentedness, something easily unbalanced in the film and in real life.
Butterfield’s portrayal of a young teen on the spectrum is accurate in every way, from his slight ticks and anxiously confused looks to his overstimulation from the Taiwanese neon lights and his curiosity of others’ behaviour. Nathan is fully aware of his difference, something clear to most autistic individuals. When speaking to Zhang Mei about the lack of bullying in China, he mentions, “I wish England was more like China.” This line poses a question or perhaps even an accusation against English education culture. Instead of acceptance and understanding, Nathan felt he had been greeted with judgment for being different, something he had little choice in. If ever I’ve heard a call to society for patience, that was as simple and as striking as possible.
The film shows us a need for unlocking a world that we, on the outside, cannot see into.
One issue requires addressing, and that is of Luke’s character. As a fellow autistic, Luke is another member of Great Britain’s IMO competitors. Far more audible than Nathan, Luke is not well-liked by the other students because of his lack of verbal filtering. He is targeted by the other boys vying to represent GB because of his lack of social understanding, and whilst we are given some visuals to prompt us in our emotional response towards him, they weren’t enough. In fact, there were parts where the film beckoned us to side with Isaac, one of Luke’s antagonisers.
Isaac at one point asks Luke “what he is”, almost villainising him, and that’s precisely the sort of scene where viewers need to fully recognize the insensitivity of the question. The scene fell short of that expectation. Luke’s character in the film deserves more patience, and the “Lukes” of the world deserve more compassion. Some of this is made up for when Luke goes off on his own, and we’re shown his compulsive behaviour that causes him to self-harm. In meta-narrative fashion, I think the film could have worked harder to make us feel emotionally connected to Luke, as well as Nathan.
Turning to supporting roles, Mr Humphreys and Julie Ellis present well-formed characters. True to life, neither of them manage without challenges, but they represent all people, simply moving forward and doing their best to get through the day when getting through the day is enough of a challenge for them. They both care for Nathan, a common denominator in bringing them closer together, as well as their mutual understanding for facing adversity.
“It’s about adaptability, Nathan. Sometimes we have to change our shade so that we fit in.” In fact, I would encourage the opposite. X+Y showed us a need for unlocking a world we, on the outside, cannot see into. It calls us all to look beyond our own corner of life and to reach out, even in the smallest of ways, to be better human beings and to have compassion for all those we share the world with.
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