The Danger of Inactive Heroes: How a Lack of Character Motivation Killed X+Y

by Samuel Marlow. Published 13th May 2015

I've just returned from seeing Morgan Matthews' X+Y and, while it contains several strong performances from actors of whom I am very fond, I was kept at an emotional arm's distance from what should have been an engaging story, by an unfocussed narrative.

X+Y Asa Butterfield

Nathan (Asa Butterfield) in X+Y.

The BBC Film is about an autistic spectrum teenage maths prodigy, who is whisked off to Taiwan to train for an international maths tournament (which actually takes place in England). As with many stories and characters of this type, the main character is socially awkward, misunderstood, prone to misunderstanding, and takes comfort in complex mathematics and patterns.

Apart from the problem that, with The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything being released to close to X+Y, this narrative ground feels well-trodden, the movie also suffers from the biggest risk for a movie of this type - a character who says and does little.

We are told in an opening monologue, which features our main character Nathan (played By Asa Butterfield who manages to capture all the odd physical quirks while still remaining endearing) wandering alone and confused in a Taiwanese downpour (which is never explained, referenced or fits in anywhere in the rest of the movie). Here, he tells us that he has trouble expressing himself and his emotions, and people assume he has nothing to say when, in reality, he has a lot to say.

X+Y Asa Butterfield

Nathan wanders Taipei alone.

We never get any indication of this, however. That is not to say one cannot have an engaging, but taciturn hero. Many of cinema's most celebrated characters have been men of few words, but they have been active in other ways.

Matthews' movie bears more than a few similarities to Stephen Daldry's 2011 film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, based on Jonathan Safran Foer's book of the same name. Where that film, however, was afflicted with a (presumably deliberately) unsympathetic hero, it proved to be far more engaging and, consequently, emotionally affecting than X+Y.

Spoilers for both X+Y and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follow.

Both movies deal with autistic spectrum kids who have a very different way of seeing the world. While I think the exact condition Extremely Loud...'s Oskar (Thomas Horn) suffers from is deliberately skirted around to allow a degree of artisitic license, Nathan is diagnosed within the first few minutes.

Both boys lose their fathers in events of random violence - Oskar in the 11th September World Trade Center attack, and Nathan to a more mundane car crash - and their need for order and rationality struggles to make sense of it. In both cases the fathers managed to find a way into their sons' worlds and find activities they can both get something from, and in both cases they are left to be raised by mothers who, while uncommonly devoted to their sons, struggle cope with their odd behaviour and emotional coldness.

Extremely Loud Thomas Horn

Oskar (Thomas Horn) in Extremely Loud and Increadibly Close.

While Oskar sublimates his rage, confusion and frustration into an obsessive quest to find the owner of a key he believes his father (Tom Hanks) left him as a clue, Nathan's life seems to carry on more or less as normal. The loss of the one person who seemed to be able to enter his world is relegated to little more than a biographical footnote.

Extremely Loud... stays in the timeframe following the death of Oskar's father, while in X+Y we skip ahead 7 years to a teenage Nathan. In the mean time he has picked up a gifted but apathetic maths tutor, Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall), who helps him apply to the International Mathematics Olympiad. Oskar also picks up a sidekick in a mute old man simply known as "The Renter" (Max von Sydow). The Renter is also an abrasive and unsympathetic man, who is as stubborn as Oskar.

Oskar and The Renter

The Renter (Max von Sydow) and Oskar.

Mr Humpreys, afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis he blames for his own failing at the IMO years earlier, is an occasionally affable, but ultimately underdeveloped character. His goofball manner and saying "fuck" to a nine-year-old seem, inexplicably, to endear him to Nathan and his mother (Sally Hawkins), but he remains a lazy, selfish, prescription-drug-abusing dropout who never undergoes any sort of change, nor alters the outcome of the story in any way beyond being a maths tutor for him.

The biggest problem I had with X+Y, though, is that I could never really get a grip on what Nathan himself wanted. After quickly getting over his father's death, he learns of the maths competition and expresses in interest with it, which then quickly skips ahead to him sitting the entrance exam. He never, to my recollection, says that he wants to take part. He says he is nervous about the exam because he wants to do well, but he never expresses a particular preference for getting accepted or not.

X+Y Taiwan

Nathan and Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) tour Taipei.

When he is, of course, accepted he is whisked off to Taiwan to train with the Chinese team in a cultural exchange programme. He again, never expresses any indication that he is pleased or excited or nervous. Once there he struggles to cope with the stimulation of light and sound, and the humid air seems so annoy him physically, but again never says or does anything to show that he regrets his decision or wants to return home.

He meets two girls who show a romantic interest in him, one on the UK team and one of the Chinese team. Both expose him to new experiences and world views, and it seems his affections turn towards his Chinese counterpart Zhang Mei (Jo Yang).

Oskar also finds himself out in the big city alone for the first time while trying to solve the mystery of the key. Small, prone to panic attacks and going off alone to rough neighbourhoods where we see many hostile characters, he is in a world for which he is neither physically nor emotionally equipped, which creates tension, and our natural state as human beings it to be concerned for him, even if we can find him annoying.

Oskar alone

Oskar alone in the City.

Nathan, meanwhile is left to wander around the seemingly very pleasant and non-threatening Taipei freely. He is often accompanied by the very competent Mei, is more or less fully grown and just a few months younger than when a lot of kids go off on gap-years anyway. He tells Mei he "feels hot" and seems to be over stimulated by the neon signs, shouting and smells of street food. BUT HE NEVER DOES ANYTHING AS A RESULT. He doesn't freak out, get lost, and his maths doesn't seem to suffer.

His developing relationship with Mei doesn't seem to impact at all on his maths, and there is never any indication that he favours one over the other and both carry on as normal.

There is a scene in which Eddie Marsan's maths coach character Richard tells Nathan that he over-complicates things, has "beautiful maths" but is unpredictable, but again, we are never shown any of these things. There is a scene where, after avoiding attention for some time, Richard makes Nathan answer a complex question.

X+Y Blackboard

Nathan does his thing.

This scene is handled the way a lot of genius scenes are handled, namely the character says a whole bunch of stuff that will go over the heads of 99.9% of the audience, while writing quickly on a blackboard as significant-sounding music builds until his peers break into spontaneous applause for a solution that, in their world, is probably as mundane as being able to find the hypotenuse on a right-angle triangle is to GCSE students. Other than the fact that he is good at maths, which has already been pointed out, this scene did nothing to develop his character. We are told he is socially awkward, but we are never shown it beyond him seeming shy and rude. Had there been an earlier scene which showed us him clamming up or blowing it under pressure, this would have developed him, but this is the first time we see him solve a problem, so for all we know he does it constantly.

Even the way he solves the problem gives nothing to the audience. He doesn't solve it in a new or interesting way, nor in an unnecessarily complicated way (like we are told he does), and all I learned from it is that if you keep subtracting from a positive number you will eventually hit zero. That was my major revelation!

Nathan's other lady friend, Rebecca (Alexa Davies), tells us the Fibonacci Sequence (never explained to be the series of numbers you get when you start with two 1s and add each new number to the one before it) is important in music, but never explains how. There is a scene where Nathan watches her play the piano and instantly manages to play the same thing she played. Here she explains how certain notes play well together, but how the Fibonacci Sequence is involved is never explained.

X+Y Nathan and Rebecca

Nathan and Rebecca (Alexa Davies) in X+Y.

After scenes with more interesting characters Nathan passes the final test to be part of the UK team by the skin of his teeth (not because he has been distracted by Taiwan or Mei or had any other character-developing experience, but because he is not and never has been as good as the others), the UK and Chinese teams return to the UK for the second part of the cultural exchange.

Mei moves in with Nathan and his mother for a brief period before everyone goes to compete at Cambridge. Here, Nathan and Mei spend a chaste night together in the same bed even though he finds physical touch uncomfortable, only to be found by Mei's uncle (Orion Lee) on the morning of the competition. Mei decides to leave, Rebecca tells Nathan that she let slip to "someone" about his relationship with Mei. Again, we are not shown this, so we don't know what she said, to whom, whether it was done spitefully as a jilted lover, with innocent enthusiasm for his happiness or as idle gossip, making the whole revelation utterly redundant and not character informing.

For reasons never explained, once in the competition Nathan has a flashback to his father's death, freaks out and runs away from the competition. For no discernible reason other than to continue his quirky character, Mr Humphreys, who has got a job as an invigilator on the competition, locks Richard in the exam room and gives him the finger when he follows to see why Nathan has left.

Nathan's mum Julie goes after him, but not before kissing Humphreys because... your guess is as good as mine.

X+Y Nathan runs

Nathan runs away from the competition.

This leads to the movie's best and most touching scene. Julie follows Nathan to a greasy spoon restaurant. She asks what Nathan's father did that she doesn't, and Nathan says he would do things like put chips up his nose to make Nathan laugh. Trying to cheer him up, Julie sticks a chip up her nose, which instantly causes Nathan to break down into floods of tears. The two of them share what seemed to be a really genuine moment where all credit must go to Butterfield's and Hawkins' emotionally naked performances.

The movie ends with them chasing Mei to the train station and her, and Nathan sitting on the train together as the credits roll.

Contrasted with the similarly tearful ending to Extremely Loud... where Oskar's mother reveals that she had visited each of the people Oskar visited before him to let them know he was coming, having deciphered his filing system, proving in the process that she actually does understand him, Oskar says he is sorry for not being "normal" and promising to try to be "better in future" is far more cathartic because it is the culmination of a linear story. Their fights, arguments, Oskar's cruel and abusive language to his mother, are washed away in a tide of tearful love.

Nathan occasionally gets testy with his mother, telling her she never does anything right and her slightly snippy response cannot compare to Oskar shouting at his mother he wishes she'd died in stead of his father and her response, "So do I!". Not that it has to, but my point is Extremely Loud... set up and paid off its story beats and character arcs. The emotional outpouring at the end was in proportion to the repressed emotion in the rest of the film.

Extremely Loud Argument

Oskar and his mother (Sandra Bullock).

In X+Y the depth of Nathan's sadness is never shown. There are several flashbacks to happier times with a (actually very convincing) young Nathan who was even made up with Butterfield's distinctive pattern of freckles, but they seemed to be dropped in to punctuate the present-day action and, short of generally reminiscing, we are again never shown anything to make us think Nathan's grief was any more potent than anyone who had lost a parent nearly a decade before. Maybe he repressed it in the intervening years, but (you guessed it!) we are never shown or told anything to make us think Nathan hadn't gone through his grieving, been sad, and learned to live with it as many people do. Quite the opposite in fact - when Mei asks if Mr Humphreys is Nathan's father he says no, his father is dead. Mei says, "That's sad," and Nathan says, "Yeah, I guess it is." Certainly nothing to warrant the "Why did he have to die?!" speech at the end, no matter how well it was performed.

So why is X+Y < Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? (See what I did there? Algebra joke!)

X+Y Table

Richard, Deng Laoshi (Orion Lee), Nathan and Zhang Mei (Jo Yang).

The most annoying problem was that it violates the story-telling 101 mantra "Show, don't tell." It may be Matthews' documentary background, but in drama you cannot effectively drop in on certain scenes and paper over cracks with expository dialogue about character traits. We need to see characters doing well or doing badly and behaving in the way they are described. Either way we need to see them DOING. Nathan is so inactive and passive through the whole story it feels like the movie was the B-roll footage from a documentary before the narration had been added and the talking-head interviews cut in.

This, though, stems from a bigger problem, and one that will scupper any narrative. I just didn't know what Nathan wanted.

As I have said before, all drama can be distilled down to "A person with a problem". How they solve (or sometimes don't) the problem is the story.

Nathan's problem is clearly set up - he is an autistic maths genius. But this is not the type of problem that can be "solved". It is amorphous, may not be a problem depending on your point of view, and is a life-long character trait rather than a specific problem.

X+Y Maths camp

Nathan and Luke.

The maths competition becomes the frame of the story, but short of going along with the flow in an Oliver Twist*-like journey where the hero never makes a decision nor does anything to alter their trajectory, Nathan never seems particularly fussed about it. His relationship with Mei and Rebecca should be important to this story, and will inform how it develops, but as it is, it is like they are happening in parallel, neither intersecting the other.

*As a side-note the best version of Oliver Twist I have seen was screened on the BBC back in 2007. A new adaptation by Sarah Phelps, directed by Coky Giedroyc and starring Timothy Spall (Rafe's father), Tom Hardy and Sophie Okenedo, all the characters were given crystal-clear motivations. Even Oliver (played with an uncharacteristically gritty nature by William Miller), usually so passive he becomes little more than luggage for large parts of the story, is given his own clear motivation of proving his innocence to Mr Brownlow, lest he think Oliver betrayed his kindness.

William Miller Oliver Twist

William Miller as Sarah Phelps' vision of Oliver Twist.

At the start we are shown Mr Humpreys, who competed in the IMO 20 years before, but flamed out much to the disappointment of his old (I assume because, yes, it is never explained or shown) mentor Richard. Nathan expresses a curiosity about it, but never a driving desire to take part. Nevertheless, the story jumps ahead to where he is sitting a stressful exam, but he never expresses any concern about the outcome. When he is told he passed, he does nothing other than acknowledge it as a fact.

If he wanted it, we are never shown it. This could have been as simple as standing up Mei so he can revise, locking himself away and perpetuating his anti-social problem. Or he is just going through the motions, with his maths scores deteriorating as he shuns revision in favour of spending time with Mei.

Either way, there is now a performable conflict in place. As it is, both his maths scores and relationship with Mei were passably good, meaning there is never any jeopardy and, consequently, no reason to care. No one seems to have ever asked him if it is what he wanted to do, it has just been assumed that as he was good at maths he should take part. We see how this plays out in the character of Luke Shelton (Jake Davies), a far more autistic teen who has taken to self-harming to cope with the pressure of having to be good at maths, which he doesn't enjoy, to justify his condition and please his parents. Luke's story is instantly more engaging because he has a definable, relatable problem that, once revealed, makes him interesting and sympathetic despite the fact he is pedantic and demanding.

X+Y Ben

Luke (Jake Davies) in X+Y.

Even combining the two stories into a search for the "equation for love", briefly mentioned in the movie (in a scene which is never explained, nor pays off, but was turned into the production's strapline in an attempt to market the movie as a romantic comedy in a vain attempt to find a single story) would have worked - a kid who tries to reduce everything to formulae finds something insoluble, transitioning from a world of binary certainty to sophisticated ambiguity.

Other characters and relationships felt under-developed. The animosity between Mr Humphreys and Richard is never explained or developed. Humphreys' teaching style is disordered and apathetic (the first trait should be abhorrent to the pattern-loving Nathan), while Richard is more about tough-love and proving yourself. They are different people, but their approach to maths doesn't seem dissimilar. Richard tells Nathan he over-complicates things, but he never shows nor explains how he could do it differently and, as far we see, Nathan gets nothing from this little chat.

X+Y Humphreys

Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall) and Nathan.

Had Humphreys been a very relaxed tutor and Richard an authoritarian that would explain the reason for their friction. Had Humphreys' tuition been competent but uninspired, and Richard was able to help Nathan understand it in a different way, beyond simply saying "Maths can be beautiful", thereby upping his game, that would be a reason for him to be in the story.

The romances between Nathan's mum Julie and Mr Humpreys, and between Nathan and Mei are never given any explanation. I can see why Nathan and Mei, both away from home for the first time and filled with hormones, might give it a go, but there is nothing they seem to bring to the relationship that the other could not have got from any of the other kids there, so their relationship literally came down to luck of the draw. Yes, Nathan did show a willingness to engage culturally, learning Chinese, but as with the piano playing he just seemed to pick it up by osmosis. Had he taught himself Chinese (possibly at the expense of his maths scores) in order to be closer to her, and Mei shown a particular understanding of Nathan's condition it would have been far more touching, and so I would have cared when she left. As it is, their relationship felt like the sort of fleeting holiday or school-trip fling that is fun for a few days but runs no deeper than mutual physical attraction.

As far as I can see, the only thing Mr Humphreys has going for him is that he happened to be in the room at the time. He gives Nathan attention, but without seeing how he interacts with his other teachers, there is no way to tell if this is normal or not. Had he shown some special understanding of, or patience with Nathan's more odd behaviour, I can see how this would endear him to Nathan's mother. But he doesn't and it doesn't.

X+Y Humphreys and Julie

Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall) and Julie (Sally Hawkins).

It's not that the movie is awful by any stretch, and it is hard to know how many cooks there were in the kitchen, so to what extent executive meddling played a part. The performances from the leads, a typically confident and textured Asa Butterfield, the consistently delightful Sally Hawkins (who seems to be contractually obliged to appear in every BBC Films offering) and always outstanding Eddie Marsan carry the movie. The scenes in Taipei look lovely, and the occasional first-person insight into Nathan's synesthesia are nice touches, even though it never impacts on the story.

The problem is that, because I didn't know what the main character wanted, beyond "liking maths", I couldn't tell if he was winning or losing, and so couldn't get emotionally involved. The fact he is socially awkward and has trouble expressing himself meant that I needed more to go on as he expressed little more than mild indifference to everything that happened to him. And without getting emotionally involved I simply didn't care.

All stories need characters who, while they may not be likeable, are relatable, or at least have motivations that we can understand. Or even motivations at all. Especially when the type of character is feeling well-trodden at this point. Unfortunately, all the characters felt observed rather than understood. Again, maybe that is Matthews' documentarian eye.

Which is a shame, because I wanted to like this movie. Asa Butterfield is an exciting new actor (if I can say "new" after more than five years of consistently strong work) who seems to be growing in confidence with every new role, Sally Hawkins is always delightful to watch, and I have never seen Eddie Marsan do anything and not love him.

X+Y Team UK

The UK Maths Team in X+Y.

I can see how these characters are conceptually interesting, but they are never explored, nor developed in a satisfactory way. Rather than one story being told well, the movie was a rambling and unfocussed series of events with characters and sub plots suddenly introduced and not developed, or paid off without having seen set up.

I don't know why Nathan didn't want to hold people's hands, why his food had to be in prime numbers, they are just facts we are supposed to accept. Had his mother been the main character, that would have been fine. We could find his behaviour as baffling as she does. But she wasn't, Nathan was. In Extremely Loud... however bizarre Oskar's behaviour, or even the Renter's, it makes sense to them, and as they are our window on their world, we understand it in context.

From my point of view, and from the ambivalent reaction of tonight's audience, it is far more important to have an active and understandable main character, even if outwardly unlikeable, than an inert, unrelatable one...

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