Ben X tells the story of Ben, an autistic teenager who uses his favourite online role-playing game, Archlord, as a way to escape the constant bullying he faces at school. Those who have read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog will be familiar with the rigidly precise way in which a person with Asperger’s syndrome views the world around them. Ben cannot grasp what it means to “sleep tight”, nor does he understand why his mother always greets him with “Good morning”, even when there is nothing particularly good about it.
The narrative is delivered in a series of interviews with Ben’s family and teachers, together with first-hand accounts from Ben himself, which provides a detailed window into their motivations. The main thrust of the story here is the build-up to the drastic action Ben’s parents take in order to combat the people who make his life a misery. Given the fatalistic way in which the characters speak, and the recurring mention of death, the film would appear fairly straight-forward from the outset: either we believe Ben will resort to murder, or that (owing largely to the fact his mother refers to him in the past tense) Ben himself dies. To reveal the true climax would be to spoil the film somewhat, but it stands as one of the film’s strongest points that viewer expectations are manipulated until the final scene.
To be honest, the short blurb for this film contains a world of possibilities that are simply not taken advantage of. The idea of a troubled young teen escaping into the fantasy land of his computer game is a solid, if not entirely original, one, and could have set the scene for some extraordinary set pieces, even if those were rendered in a relatively lo-fi fashion, such as the fantastical elements seen in The Science of Sleep. Instead, the fact that Ben is fascinated with a role-playing game and views himself as a character in it seems to be tacked-on, and is only ever referred to in short clips that do little to advance the story.
At several points, there is too much happening all at once for any of it to have an impact. There are the subtitles to read, which would not be problematic were it not for the way in which the camera relentlessly jump-cuts at break-neck speeds; all this, plus we often have Ben’s thoughts voiced aloud on top of the action. When you consider that Ben’s mind is often caught in an erratic state of torment, this could prove either a clever editing technique in order to bring us further into the protagonist’s world and thoughts, or it may simply be a distraction. While there are some effectively harrowing scenes of bullying here, the acting is let down a little by the casting of Greg Timmermans as Ben. He is clearly a man closing in on his thirties, and so it’s often easy to forget he’s supposed to be playing a teenager, resulting in a sometimes jarring viewing experience.
Overall though, Ben X blends fantasy, gritty realism, and some lovely poetic dialogue, to form an engaging whole. For all its difficult subject matter and tortured characters, it manages to avoid getting bogged down in a melancholy so dark as to be exasperating. Issues of suicide and the afterlife are handled in a direct, downplayed and ultimately mature manner. Indeed, the conversation between Ben and his possibly imaginary girlfriend about the ins-and-outs of hanging oneself are infused with a grim sort of humour. Thanks to its offbeat nature and musical savvy (most films to include Sigur Ros on the soundtrack usually have a specific, young and “hip” audience in mind) Ben X is sure to become a little cult classic.