Ben X

Ben X

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Ben X began life as a true story, which over time has become refracted and distorted much like reality as its titular protagonist perceives it. Popular Flemish film critic Nic Balthazar read a tragic newspaper account of a mother's grief over the death of her mildly autistic son, who had been virtually driven to suicide by bullying. Deeply moved, Balthazar responded by writing a novel for adolescents entitled Niets Was Alles Wat Hij Zei (Nothing Was All He Said). This, in turn, was transformed into a sell-out multi-media stage performance co-written by Balthazar, and then, eventually, into Balthazar's directorial debut. The wait has been well worth it.

Even if you are unfamiliar with the details of the real-life events that inspired it, you know from the outset that Ben X cannot end well. After a brief introduction in which Ben (Greg Timmermans) declares, "I never tell lies. Everything I say is true, even when I don't say anything", we flash forward to a television interview with his mother (Marijke Pinoy) complaining gravely that "someone always has to die first" before anything ever happens.

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Ben, we learn, is an intelligent, quiet, highly sensitive teenager whose Asperger's syndrome prevents him from communicating normally with others. Alienated far beyond your average adolescent angst, and mercilessly bullied at school, Ben retreats into the virtual world of internet fantasy game ArchLord, where alone he can find strength and respect, and even a close online relationship with another player, Scarlite (Laura Verlinden). Yet as his situation at school grows more violent and difficult, and as the film keeps flashing forward ominously to more television interviews in which parents, teachers and doctors comment grimly (some weeping) on what has happened/will happen, we see Ben beginning to lose altogether his desire to keep playing a losing game – until, that is, Scarlite steps in and helps him plan a neat exit strategy that will reset everything.

Seamlessly merging live-action footage with animated game sequences and computer read-outs, Ben X traps viewers in the mindset of a tormented and confused young man, and then takes them for a ride (in every sense of that expression). The awful tension between the ending that is inevitably coming, and the different ways the film might get there, makes for genuinely difficult viewing – as does the sight of a helpless boy being viciously humiliated as most of his classmates look on, laugh, and film the spectacle on their mobile phones, only to upload later onto the internet (till then, his one refuge from their assaults).

Ben's predicament is awful, and he is ill-equipped to resolve it – even if the film for a while allows him (and us) to indulge a revenge fantasy which, if in fact realised, could only make things worse. Yet from this seemingly unstoppable downward spiral, Ben (through Balthazar's humane reconfiguring of history) finds an ingenious and unexpected endgame, somewhere between wish-fulfilment fantasy and traumatic reality. When Ben finally takes the reins of his life, it's a ride all right - and you will leave feeling battered, and yet strangely exhilarated, when it comes to its shuddering stop.

And what is more, you will leave with the sense that all the film's harrowing anguish and unpleasantness, as well as its flights of fancy, have been staged for the most responsible of reasons. For not only is Ben X a visually stunning film marked by uniformly excellent performances from its ensemble cast, but unlike the virtual-reality shenanigans of, say, The Matrix trilogy (which at one point it overtly references), this film's purpose goes beyond mindlessly diverting entertainment towards something altogether more pressing and socially relevant.

So log on now for Ben X's brand of reality, as vital as it is virtual.

Reviewed on: 03 Jul 2008
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A bullied teen takes refuge in a world of online gaming.
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