Dir: Nic Balthazar, Belgium - Netherlands, 2007, 90 mins.
A galvanizing portrait of autism and its profound impact on both the autistic person and their families and community, Ben X boldly melds virtual reality with live-action verite style and docudrama to create what may be a new film grammar. Inspired by actual events - the suicide of a mildly autistic Belgian student who was virtually harassed to death - first-time director Nic Balthazar has adapted his book and his stage play without committing the sins of over-exposition and staginess those provenances can spawn.
Buttressed by strong performances - particularly newcomer Timmermans in the lead - the film has not an ounce of fat or histrionics. Rarely has so much emotion and excitement been compressed into 90 minutes of screen time.
The film received standing ovations at both its screenings at the Montreal World Film Festival, where it receivedits world premiere, and it has recently been awarded the Black Pearl Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Film at Abu Dhabi after winning the Ecumenical and audience prizes at 31st Montreal Film Festival. Itis Belgium's official contender for a Best Foreign Film Oscar
Autism is a hot-button issue and the film is staying ahead of a curve that may peak with Steven Kloves' adaptation of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time for Warner Bros. It is sure to be a hit in Belgium where the stage play ran for 250 performances. It opens in the Benelux September 27.
One challenge may be convincing older audiences to engage with a film wherein the dreaded video-gaming world is so integral. But the film would not be possible without the virtual landscape; it is called Ben X and not Ben for good reason. Ben X can die and be summoned back to life with the push of the re-set button. Ben cannot. This polarity drives the film.
Ben X is a powerful figure in the world of ArchLord. Armed with every conceivable weapon he rides out to meet and slay his enemies. He is everything that Ben (Timmermans), his teenage creator, is not. We watch as Ben X's weapons, armour and hair changes shape texture and colour. 'When I construct my avatar,' says Ben in voice-over, 'I can give him any attribute.' But when he prepares for technical school, poking ineffectually at his tangled hair with a comb, it's always the same loser staring back from the mirror.
In documentary clips his mother (Pinoy) and father (Goossen) speak retrospectively of their fears for him while Ben's teachers and school mates shake their heads at society. Something tragic has happened and we're about to find out.
While voice-over is typically a cheat in cinema - 'telling' because the picture isn't 'showing' - Ben's voice is a character separate from his corporeal self: a mouse-clicking puppetmaster in both the real and virtual worlds, commenting on his life and situation with little emotion but never explaining the action on screen. He would make an unreliable narrator as he often doesn't understand it himself. Balthazar forces us to accept Ben's reality by placing us in his head.
His memories are not whole images, but distinct fragments, intensely focused pictures at the perimeter of the action. We see not his mother but only her care-worn eyes, not the psychiatrist but an almost microscopic close-up on an unsightly tuft of neck hair, then the lips of another specialist moving over tea-stained teeth as the man explains the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, a kind of high-functioning autism characterised by an inability to comprehend or navigate the social world.
Thus his journey to school is far more treacherous an adventure than his video game. Through oblique angles and sonic effects the film interpets Ben's sensory overload as a constant bombardment: light, horns, the exchange of saliva between two teens embracing at the bus stop. Balthazar audaciously introduces a small videogame menus in one corner of the live action screen, reminding us of Ben's impulses and references.
Alone Ben can achieve a kind of peace, especially when his online companion Scarlite joins him in battle. But other people are a torment of unpredictability and confusion. School is living hell. The people who he calls his friends are in fact ignorant bullies who have no idea of the havoc they are wreaking.
Everyone has a snapping point. Ostensibly, Ben's is an incident of 'happy-slapping', cyber bullying wherein the victim is not only physically abused but the incident is recorded and then posted on the web. But Ben's real-world response is unsuccessful and he plots his own demise. It's not until Scarlite (Verlinden) appears in the flesh to point the way - a final stroke of audacity that sets the audience on its perceptive heels - that Ben X can concoct the ultimate end-game.
MMG Film & Television Production
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Nic Balthazar, based on his book 'Niets Was Alles Wat Hij Zei' and his play 'Niets'
Titus De Voogdt