X +Y, also known in the U.S as A Brillant Young Mind, is a 2014 British drama directed by Morgan Matthews, Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins. Inspired by the documentary Beautiful Young Minds and by the life of the mathematical genius Daniel Lightwing, the movie focuses on Nathan Ellis, a young man suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome who enters a mathematics competition at Cambridge University. While his mental illness causes him to struggle emotionally, he strives to understand the world around him.
Nowadays, it is true that Asperger’s Syndrome is considered an inspiring subject for many writers and directors. Indeed, pop culture is building some stereotypes about this mental illness which affects many people in the world, even if there are still many mysteries surrounding the spectrum. From Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory) to Sherlock (BBC’s Sherlock), the typical Aspergers man is perceived as a self-centered genius that cannot communicate with the others. However, is this representation true? Let’s face it. Not only is this portrayal completely romanticized, but it also makes it impossible to dissociate the myth from the reality. I absolutely think it contributes to feeding the audience with preconceived ideas about a mental illness that is unfortunately rather difficult to understand. Even if there are some advantages to cast Aspie (a word which means “someone with Aspergers”) characters, they should not be the heirs of the mad genius’s myth that came accross the nineteenth century. Do you like Sheldon and Sherlock? Fine. Ultimately, if you want to support Aspies, don’t get mad at the young man or woman who wants to find a job and struggles during an interview. Don’t laugh at these people’s reactions, conversations and whatever. You should open your eyes and see that people with Aspergers are not only fictional characters on TV. Asperger’s Syndrome is different for each person – and that is why it is extremely difficult to diagnose.
However, I have been pleasantly surprised by watching X + Y. This movie tends to challenge the stereotypes concerning people with Aspergers. At the beginning of the movie, Nathan Ellis seems to be a genius: he enjoys mathematics, he has a private professor with advanced courses and he is selected to take a difficult test at Cambridge University. However, Nathan is not the best student in his class. As the professor in Taiwan states, Nathan’s results were rather disappointing. While he is not interested in his peers, particularly not his mother, he falls in love with Zhang Mei, a girl he met during his two-week math camp in Taiwan. If you have seen movies such as Adam, by Max Mayer, you will realize that someone with Aspergers cannot fully integrate into society and, above all, cannot fully immerse themselves in a relationship. That is why I did not like Adam despite Hugh Dancy’s impressive performance. It did not give the autistic character a chance to have a “ happy ending”, while X + Y’s director, Morgan Matthews, gives Nathan Ellis an opportunity to face his illness in order to live a “normal” life.
In addition to this, I am certain that the other interesting characters that take part in Nathan’s adventures also help to spread another perception of Asperger’s Syndrome. All charactes are somewhat “broken” too. There are no “villains” in X + Y, instead there are human beings trying to fight their personal issues. Martin Humphreys, his private professor and Julie Ellis, his mother, are both particularly touching. Martin appears as a fatherly and comforting figure who supports Nathan in order to make him reach his goals while Julie embodies the unconditional mother’s love. What’s more, Zhang Mei plays a key role in Nathan’s life as she is both his friend and his lover. She awakens him to physical and emotional feelings as demonstrated in the “kiss scene” shows. This large palette of characters has an impact on the way Morgan Matthews draws on some compelling features of Asperger’s Syndrome. However, if you look further, the director extends his thought by pointing out a social question: how can being different affect us? Aren’t we all different? Nathan is not the only character to be deemed as “different”. Martin Humphrey lost control of his own body because of sclerosis. Julie is a lonely widow. Zhang Mei, who has been taught all her life to dedicate herself to work, falls in love for the first time and chooses to give up the competition when her uncle discovers she has feelings for Nathan. Although they certainly do not fit in our society’s ridiculous models, they all find what they have been looking for since the beginning.
Even the minor characters in the film are “different” from the norms and aim to question their place within society. For example, Luke Shelton, another autistic teenager taking part in the competition, is the hero of a powerful scene when he learns that he is not selected to take the exam in Cambridge. Later, Nathan finds him alone in the bathroom cutting his wrist. Luke explains that being a genius was his only way to exist as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome person and that now, he could only be considered a “weird”person: “It’s alright being weird as long as you’re gifted. But if you’re not gifted, then…That just leaves weird.” Once again, this moving moment constitutes an incredible revelation to all of the Aspies you can find in pop culture: if you aren’t a mysterious, intelligent young man with memorable punchlines, you’re just an “odd” person.
X + Y celebrates the minds of autistic peoples Nathan himself says : “I find any communication of a non-mathematical nature very difficult. Because I don’t talk much, people think I don’t have anything to say or that I’m stupid. Or, that’s not true. I have lots of things to say.” It is not about creating a fake universe and pretending to put forward people with Aspergers as a charitable gesture. It is about revealing every side of the spectrum – regardless of whether it is “good” or “bad”. That is why Nathan can be as fascinating as well as irritating – particularly when he treats his mother badly. Yet you cannot help but sympathise with him because it is part of how his brain works.
In reality, the whole movie is about facing our fate and fighting against our fears. Even if Nathan is different from his peers, he does not want to be defined as a man with Aspergers but rather as a human being. That is why I really love the final scene of X + Y. Nathan realizes he neveranted to win the competition in order to fit in the “autistic genius” stereotype. Nathan runs away and expresses his feelings about love to his mother for the first time. He starts to cry when he talks about his dead father and hugs Julie. At the end of the movie, Nathan communicates with his mother by showing different expressions: laughing, crying, smiling and by showing a strong physical connection to her by holding her in his arms. The last scene of the movie exposes Nathan and Zhang Mei together in a train hugging. Where will the train lead them? Where will they go? The “ train ” is often associated with Asperger’s Syndrome as something that most of Aspies are interested in. However, in this case, Nathan is not alone in the train. The shot emphasizes both Nathan and Zhang Mei laughing and being happy.
I see this movie as a positive interpretation of Asperger’s Syndrome and a tribute to those who feel they are “ odd ”. I would even go further by asserting that X + Y is a progressive movie about Aspergers as it portrays the condition as a social problem rather than a mental illness. That’s why it gives an idea of love and hope that could help considerably people on the spectrum to feel more integrated in society. It could even help them realize that they can love and be loved in return. No matter who you are, you’ll always find your own path. We should all remember this beautiful lesson.