With Ben X Belgian director Nic Balthazar presents a character study of a young man terrorized by school yard bullies. The slapstick of the similarly themed Drillbit Taylor has been stripped from the story and what emerges is an engrossing look at the effect of classroom harassment and the role that modern technology plays in exacerbating the problem but also providing an escape from the harsh reality of life as the brunt of someone else’s joke.
Based on a stage play that ran for 250 performances in Belgium and shot pseudo documentary style the film slowly unveils the life of Benny (Greg Timmermans) a young wide eyed student we soon learn suffers from Asperger Syndrome, one of several autism spectrum disorders characterized by difficulties in social interaction and by restricted, stereotyped interests and activities. The brunt of cruel and humiliating hazing, school, where he is called “the man from Mars,” is a living hell for him and he only feels alive when he retreats into the world of an on-line sword-and-sorcery game called ArchLord. “He’s an extraordinary person,” says his doctor in one of the film’s many documentary talking-head style inserts, “who fights to be ‘normal.’” “Think of him as a computer that’s been configured differently,” says another.
When the bullying reaches a breaking point after a particularly humiliating stunt is posted on the internet, Benny—he’s only known as Ben X on-line, although the name has double meaning. Ben X sounds phonetically like ‘I am nothing’ in Dutch—must enlist the help of a possibly imaginary girlfriend and his harried parents to come up with an extreme solution to not only an end his torment, but to bring comeuppance to the bullies who have abused him.
Ben X isn’t a predictable movie. It constantly veers off into unexpected territory but remains compelling and believable because of Balthazar’s effective direction and lead performance by Timmermans.
Balthazar nails the scary, overwhelming world that Benny lives in with creative use of sound and visual effects, and his handling of the gaming portions of the film, integrated into Benny’s life, seems like a necessary addition to the film instead of a gimmick. It’s all so nicely handled that the filmmaker’s determination for the story to wrap on a high note seems like an odd choice given the brutal power of the story’s earlier moments. The happy ending isn’t as effective as it could be, and while it doesn’t sour the whole experience, it just makes it feel slightly less plausible.
At the core of it all is Greg Timmermans in his screen debut. Despite being obviously a few years too old for the role, he delivers a quietly powerful performance that relies on his ability to use his expressive eyes to show us Benny’s thought process. It’s a brave, unsentimental performance about a young man trying to learn to fake real feelings that never feels false or forced.
Ben X presented in Dutch with English subtitles is an audacious film that only falters when it tries to be a crowd pleaser.