Mathematics has always proven problematic for filmmakers, if you’ll excuse the weak pun, for the prevailing reason that complex math alienates most of us on grounds of incomprehension. It’s another language, but so estranging to the ignorant is the language of math that its beauty is almost impossible for us to empathise with. At least with French or Italian we can hear the cadences in tone and can appreciate the difference between a pleasant dialect in relation to an unpleasant dialect. Maths films are always about people who are great at maths, because there’s nothing particularly compelling about middle school algebra, and so the work of the subject has gone over most of our heads. Unfortunately, the solution of most filmmakers is to ignore the problem altogether. What is a film about John Nash’s work on game theory or Alan Turing’s work on Enigma that isn’t a film about John Nash’s work on game theory or Alan Turing’s work on Enigma? It’s a common problem and Hollywood’s answer, most of the time, has been to inject melodrama and sex into stories where there should be none.
Morgan Matthews’s X+Y, inspired by his own documentary Beautiful Young Minds, suffers from this tradition of waxing lyrical about the incredible nature of a protagonists work in maths while never making a concerted effort to genuinely convey just why it’s all so incredible. It’s less grating in X+Y than it is in a lot of other films, partly because the film is fictional. It’s not about an Alan Turing or a John Nash, so it doesn’t matter so much whether we gain insight into the process behind the thought. Maths in X+Y is a launch pad, a conductor to tell a greater story about a boy with a neurodevelopmental disability – specifically, autism. Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is a maths prodigy who has difficulty with empathy and emotional connection. He finds comfort in numbers and this enjoyment is fostered by his loving mother (Sally Hawkins) and devoted teacher (Rafe Spall). We can’t grasp Nathan’s capacity for thought, but then neither can those around him. The obliviousness is certainly returned by Nathan himself, but it’s a sentimental obtuseness rather than an intellectual one.
Matthews does an admirable job at expressing the isolation that children who don’t fit in, particularly those who are rejected as weird because of a disability, as well as the idea of being extraordinary at something at the sacrifice of everything else. But X+Y is a slight film dealing with issues beyond its own capacity and so ultimately the most interesting elements of the narrative are reduced and in one case, resolved with impossible naivety. Matthews has a created a heartwarming film, which is exceedingly watchable, that perhaps doesn’t reflect actuality.