Ben X, Belgian director Nic Balthazar’s film debut, is an ambitious drama exploring the autistic mind and how far harassment can go before the victim loses control.
At the beginning, we are introduced to Ben (superbly played by Greg Timmermans), a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who lives with his well-meaning mother and younger brother. Ben spends all his free time playing Archlord, a fantasy role-playing game where he becomes Ben X and plays alongside Scarlitte, a teenage girl who is impressed by his gaming skills. The game gives him a sense of purpose in a world that becomes increasingly out of control.
Ben’s life at school, quite simply, is hell. He is relentlessly tormented by two repugnant teenage boys. His teachers try to help him but are ineffectual. The situation worsens when an embarrassing prank perpetrated on him is videotaped and posted all over the internet.
Feeling that he has no where to turn, he hides what happened from his family and teachers and becomes increasingly disturbed and suicidal. Finally, close to breaking point, Ben decides to meet with Scarlitte, who is interested in visiting him in real life. Together with Scarlitte, his divorced father, and his desperate mother, he comes up with a bizarre plan to get back at his tormenters.
I waited a long time for this movie, and as it generally is in this case, was disappointed. Which isn’t to say thatBen X is a bad film. On the contrary, it has many good qualities. The main thing that struck me was that this is one of the first times a character on the autistic spectrum takes center stage and is treated as a person, not a plot device. Often, the character with autism is used to evoke feelings from the other people in the movie or to teach them what is really important in life.
This film, without avoiding the family’s perception of the situation, concentrates on Ben and his reactions to what’s happening around him. Secondly, the acting in Ben X is top-notch, especially from Greg Timmermans and Marijke Pinoy, as Ben’s mother. Greg Timmermans has excellent facial expressions and mannerisms, and in his and the directors hands, the main character becomes a real person.
Many scenes and situations in Ben X, however, are very melodramatic and over-the-top, but the ending is its greatest weakness. Alternately bizarre and unrealistic, it detracts from an otherwise good movie. The director seems to think that neatly tying things up is more important than realism, and it shows.
The film builds up a great deal of suspense and a foreboding that something terrible will happen, but seems to wimp out toward the end. I don’t enjoy depressing endings, but I felt that the conclusion wasn’t believable at all. I am bound to cut this film some slack, because there are so few movies about high-functioning autism and because I waited a long time to watch it. Although I think it was ultimately disappointing, it also did many things right and tried to do what most directors haven’t done effectively before.