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Film review - 'X+Y' - by Ben Calandruccio

29 January 2019

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Ben Calandruccio is a movie fan, writer and a young man on the autism spectrum.

He's back with a new movie review for us.

When you try to aspire to achieve your dreams, it’s inevitable that there will be some obstacles in your way. One includes a more basic task, such as trying to explore a new country. A more serious obstacle involves a death in the family that could develop into a trauma. In this movie, our lead suffers from both of these problems.

X + Y or A Brilliant Young Mind as known to other countries, features just that; an aspiring teen prodigy with autism, attempting to reach the International Mathematical Olympiad, despite being thrust out of his comfort zone in an attempt to qualify and trying to deal with the ongoing trauma of losing his father.

The film opens with Nathan as a teen, who finds communicating somewhat difficult. During the first time we see him, he explains with his thoughts that he actually does ‘have lots of things to say’, with fear being the main problem. Nathan is played by Asa Butterfield, who you would recognise him from Hugo and Ender’s Game, whilst an unknown Nathan Baker-Close plays the younger Nathan in the flashback scenes. Both of them play the one character legitimately, as they make Nathan trying to overcome various obstacles besides his autism look authentic.

During a trip to the children’s psychiatrist, the latter reveals to Nathan’s parents that their son has autism. This is where we get to see how Nathan ticks; he likes patterns, and he even gets to play with a stegosaurus under the table during the parents’ talk. Michael tells his son that he has special powers, like a wizard, though he does concede that Autism is ‘a different language’. Michael even gives his son a comforting word of advice; “even though we don’t always understand each other… it doesn’t mean that any of us ever stops loving each other.”

Unfortunately, things change once the penny drops in the form of a Transit van, immediately offing Michael in a car crash less than five minutes into the film… just like with White Frog. If it makes you feel any better about this tragedy being spoiled, Michael does continue to appear throughout the movie despite this in flashbacks. However, this remains a tragedy, as Nathan is forced to grow up without his father figure, while Julie, Nathan’s recently widowed mother, struggles to connect with her son, who sees her more as a caretaker. This is only exacerbated when all of the flashbacks show Nathan and his father having memorable moments.

Despite the young age of nine, Nathan is enrolled in advanced classes at a new school in an attempt to avoid being distracted over the death of his father. Of all the teachers to help him, Martin is given the offer. Like Nathan, Martin is battling with a disability of his own, being Multiple Sclerosis, but also has a bit of a problem with drugs, evident as he confiscates a cigarette from some schoolkids prior and smokes it when they are gone.

Initially reluctant about teaching a child prodigy, Martin ends up having some positive thoughts about Nathan, seeing him as the second coming of the teacher himself. Throughout the seven years, a bond between the two grows in time for the 59th International Mathematical Olympiad. Despite some minor distractions from Martin, Nathan manages to finish the test. Martin reveals the results to Nathan and Julie, and – after initially downplaying the result – Nathan qualifies for the IMO.

After the result, an ‘excited’ Nathan heads upstairs to study, though he looks down at the interactions between Julie and Martin with the telescope (with Martin continuing to offer his tutorage to Nathan free of charge). This could be an example on the lack of trust Nathan has with his mother, especially considering that his cover-up story was him ‘looking for Jupiter’. After he accidentally drops the telescope, Julie responds that it was nice to talk to someone – something that she seemed to have lacked for a while.

This has been the major issue with Julie; for years since her husband’s death, she rarely had the opportunity to chat to someone, let alone her own son on normal terms. Though a death in the family is traditionally the hardest thing to get over, Julie – outside of her working hours – either apparently hasn’t made any friends or begun to shrink as her son rarely spoke to her over the years. You can’t help but sympathise with her over being called out by her son for mucking up the order for the Chinese meal.

Arriving in the UK Maths camp, Nathan is greeted by mentor Richard and leader Isaac, who – after realising this is the former’s first time – encourages him to jump right in. Among the group of sixteen (including Nathan and Isaac), are Rachel (the only woman in the UK squad) and Luke (a fellow autistic kid). One of the things I find interesting about the camp is that prior to the ride to Taiwan, two fellow teammates are playing Chess, improvised with cups. Too bad there weren’t any black cups, because that game of chess would’ve been confusing to follow.

After the English team arrives in Taiwan, each member is paired with a Chinese member, with Nathan getting Zhang Mei. During a lunch break, Nathan and Chinese partner Zhang Mei visit a garden park, where Nathan tells her that he prefers the Chinese approach of Maths, which is considerably more relaxing and soothing, compared to the British way. The two have a playful lunch soon after, where Zhang Mei eats one of Nathan’s prawn balls to make the amount a prime number, which was actually cute and kind of funny. This leads to Nathan having the courage to solve a problem involving cards, impressing hard-to-please Richard after solving the problem correctly and receiving the applause of the class.

A fellow autistic teen on the UK team in Luke is unlike Nathan, despite having been diagnosed; instead of being shy, he is notably and unfortunately defiant, has an obsession of getting on the team, a negative voice of the group, socially incompetent, and has a fixation of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, judging by the ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch. After blowing off an earlier team game with math rapping, and going as far as to question why the team were making ‘fun questions’, Isaac and co. begin to get tired of Luke and shun him for being on the negative side of autism compared to Nathan.

Things only get worse following the qualification test, however; after Nathan edges out Luke by the skin of his teeth, Isaac and co. are relieved that they don’t have to see Luke anymore. While they may be justified, one can’t help but feel sorry over Luke, especially when his ‘Dead Prawn’ sketch goes over like lead in water, making him cut his arm overnight. Despite Nathan attempting to reassure Luke that he is gifted, Luke appears to have been also scarred mentally due to the incident. Just because some autistic people can be negative doesn’t mean that they, too, don’t have feelings when bullied.

As Zhang Mei visits and Nathan returns to England, Zhang Mei is impressed with the sights of England, one of which being the beautiful rainbow. Julie and Martin congratulate Nathan making the team with a celebration party in the form of trains. While it seems like a kind gesture, Nathan sees this as a bad idea in hindsight, as it provides another repressed flashback for Nathan with his father Michael.

Notably, all of the following flashbacks showed that Nathan always had some security with his father, meaning Nathan felt safe and free to express himself when Michael was around. While Michael does represent the good times that Nathan had, he also resembles the void in the hearts of the family members as well. In Nathan’s case, he has been unable to overcome his shyness, while Julie was unable to start regular conversations outside of work and Michael’s funeral.

While Nathan and Zhang Mei do get to Cambridge University, it would be wise to stop here, as I wouldn’t want to give away how the movie ends. X + Y was… not an easy film for me to review. While it did intrigue me with the autistic prodigy being taken out of his comfort zone in an attempt to grab a spot on the team, the movie made it clear that it would be a tough ride just minutes into the film for Nathan. When something bad was about to go down, the movie does not hold back any punches.

That said, the movie did make me root for Nathan overcoming his traumatic past, and it was only made sweeter when he made it on the team. The flashbacks with Michael, meanwhile, showed that he built up a long loving memory with his son to the point that he needed his dad to fall asleep while away in Thailand. And with Julie conversing with Martin, it does show that she is beginning to open up and talk with someone again, while Martin – who started off as an apathetic and uninterested teacher for Nathan – fills the void for the lack of a father figure for some time.

If you do choose to watch X + Y, keep in mind that this film is not for children, with the occasional vulgar language, minor drug references, inflicted pain and… a car crash. But it is a movie that ultimately carries an overall feel-good message to help overcome your troubles and reach your goals. Even if your goal is something different to Nathan’s.

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