Ben is a teenager who oozes strength, character and control. He is the master of his own destiny. But only for a very specific time each morning. Only when he is immersed in his online character, exploring the fantasy world of a best selling on-line game.
Outside of the game Ben is only a shell of his online avatar. He only copes through routine and the relative safety of his home. Once he leaves for school every morning Ben enters a dangerous and alien world. A world that assaults his senses, populated by people who don’t understand him, and for the most part, make fun of him.
Ben lives under the constant shadow of Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. Ben doesn’t understand why he should smile at people when there is nothing to smile about. He’s constantly analysing sayings that don’t make sense, like ‘Good Morning’. Why do we always say good morning? What if it’s a bad morning, we don’t say “bad morning’ muses Ben in his head.
Life outside of his cyber world, out side of home is a living hell for Ben. He tries to learn how to ‘be normal’ but people can see that he’s not. They take advantage of him; play jokes on him. Ben suffers through it all silently, but with a growing frustration and internalised boiling anger.
Two boys in particular make Ben’s real life a living hell, they torment him constantly, pretending to be his friend, whilst making fun of his, pushing him into meltdown, and in one instance stealing his phone/MP3 player – his one method of shutting out the noise of the world – then forcing him to take a pill that will ‘make him into superman.’
No one seems to know how to deal with Ben, he won’t stand up for himself, he won’t talk to anyone about what’s happening – he almost actively pushes help away.
Internalising his anger and frustration is pushing Ben to breaking point, to his end game. The only person he can talk to is hi online ‘girl friend.’ So overwhelming is his emotional break down online that she insists on getting on a train to come and meet him. The only problem is, is that Ben doesn’t cope well with social situations in the real world.
She how ever does give Ben the strength he needs to come up with the ultimate end game.
The way the film is skilfully crafted, we know something bad is going to happen; there is a constant feeling of immanent doom through the film. The story is interspersed with what looks like a television interview with Ben’s mum, dad and principal. They are all talking about how they didn’t see it coming until it had already happened.
It’s an ending that will knock the wind out of you sails, the epicentre of an emotional earthquake that has rocked the last hour or so of your film watching life. So mesmerising a story has first time director Nic Balthazer woven, that it never allows you to sit comfortably and just watch. You have to become emotionally involved with Ben’s life. It’s probably made even more powerful because it is based on a very true story.
Greg Timmermans absolutely nails the role of Ben, his mannerisms, outlook on life, social interactions all scream Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s as if the actor himself has experience living with this ‘disorder,’ such is his mesmerising performance.
Bound together in a creative mix of an online fantasy world, that constantly spills into real life through Ben’s thought and coping processes, an often humorous look at our ‘normal’ mannerisms from Ben’s ‘abnormal’ point of view and a great cast of actors who play their roles with a raw and convincing honesty, Ben X is the best film most people won’t see this year.
And why won’t many people see it? Because they will be put off by the subtitles, they won’t look past the concept of autism, or a socially inept boy lost in a fantasy world of online gaming. In other words, they won’t see the beauty of being able to see past the social constraints of this world we live in. They won’t experience the wide range of emotions that are poured out directly into the viewer’s soul.
And it’s their loss really, because this was the best film of last years NZ Film Festival, and is still just as powerful the second time round on DVD.
Reviewed by: Jonathan Read
Rating: [M] Content may disturb
Released on: August 20th, 2009
Stars: Greg Timmermans, Laura Verlinden, Marijke Pinoy, Pol Goossen
Supported Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Director: Balthazar, Nic
Studio: Aztec International