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This boy's life on the autism spectrum

  • 09 April 2015

X+Y (M). Director: Morgan Matthews. Starring: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Martin McCann, Jo Yang, Jake Davies, Alexa Davies. 111 minutes

A highlight of last year's disability-themed The Other Film Festival was Summer Deroche's short doco about eccentric electric lamp enthusiast Andrew Pullen. The Globe Collector packed plenty of pathos and humour into its consideration of Pullen, his obsession, and his life with Asperger's. 'I don't like the term disorder,' he says in the film. '[Asperger's is] just another type of person. Another type of personality.'

His words ring true when viewing X+Y, documentarian-turned-feature filmmaker Morgan Matthews' coming-of-age film about a boy's life on the autism spectrum. The film contains at least two characters who have been diagnosed as 'on the spectrum', and they bear out Pullen's claim to 'another type of personality'. Their 'otherness' is portrayed merely as a different permutation of normality.

The film's adolescent hero, Nathan (Butterfield), was diagnosed when he was young, and was encouraged by his parents to view the diagnosis as a gift rather than a curse. In particular, it manifests in part as a prodigious talent for numbers and mathematics. Nathan finds order and patterns soothing, and so mathematics becomes a refuge and a passion more than simply an academic interest.

While Nathan's father Michael (McCann) shares a close bond with his son, his mother Julie (Hawkins), despite the depth of her love and her most sincere efforts, cannot seem to connect with him in the same way. The distance between mother and son is exacerbated when Michael is killed in a car accident; Julie's subsequent struggle to connect with Nathan is X+Y's touching, emotional through-line.

The film follows Nathan's efforts to win a place at a prestigious international competition for budding mathematicians. Travelling to Taiwan to train with a group of other prodigies from England, China and elsewhere, Nathan meets Luke, another boy who is 'on the spectrum' but who, with a more abrasive personality than the soft-spoken Nathan, has been singled out for bullying by their peers.

Luke's story provides a sad counterpoint to Nathan's. Nathan's introversion and quiet intelligence tends to appeal to those around him (no less than two girls on the camp, Rebecca (Davies) and Zhang Mei (Yang), display a romantic interest in him), and his social awkwardness might as well be attributable to adolescence as to autism. Luke, on the other hand, works hard to fit in, and is ostracised for his efforts.

In one heartbreaking