Hello folks, and welcome to this week’s Grab Bag. In an effort to bring you all kinds of films, sometimes I just have to take a chance on something, but compared to some of the fare I’ve been looking at lately, it’s a big shift in gears. I don’t know what else to say about this one up front so let’s just get right into it.
Ben X (2007) starring Greg Timmermans, Marijke Pinoy, Laura Virlinden, Titus De Voogdt, and Maarten Claeyssens. Directed by Nic Balthazar.
Ben (Timmermans) spends most of his time alone. Even with people around, Ben is alone in his head. He goes to a school where he gets mercilessly picked on, and the kids call him ‘The Martian’. When he’s at home, Ben has memorized his relationship with his mother (Pinoy) and knows every word before it comes out of her mouth. Ben is autistic, but when he plays an online fantasy role-playing game called Archlord, he is powerful level 80, he is someone, and he is with his healer, Scarlight. For the time each day when he plays the game, he has some sense of how it is to be normal, but when the terrors of his school day invade his online world, it blows apart his life. Ben begins to feel he needs an endgame for his life, to quit playing the game, but when the real Scarlight (Virlinden) comes into life, he learns that every game can have multiple endings.
The Bugg Picture
I know this movie sounds like a major downer, but really it’s not. It’s more of a minor downer. In the end this is a film that has plenty of heart, but because it comes from a Belgian director, it doesn’t fall into the heartwarming traps that befall so called “inspirational” American films. Instead it gives us a chance to experience a bit of what the life of someone like Ben might be like, and the ride is unsettling, darkly humorous, but ultimately a story about growth and understanding. All that sounds really heavy I know, but the move fuses all of this with a frenetic pacing, and some interesting visuals.
The camera acts at all times as how Ben sees the world. The cuts are jumpy and jumbled and the perspective switches constantly to mirror Ben’s heightened sense of awareness. It also flashes back and forth between Ben’s real world and parts of his game world. So while he is being bullied we see flashes of Orcs laughing at him, and each morning in the mirror as Ben does his hair, he pulls up his “character sheet”. It gives us an interesting look at the coping mechanisms that Ben has to keep up to deal with the world at all.
None of this would be possible without the amazing performance of Greg Timmermans who brings every nervous tick and wild eyed panic attack an invisible sense of painful honesty. This was Timmermans first movie and this powerhouse portrayal should help him launch quite a career. The film also features some really nice turns by the actors who play the bullies (Voogdt and Claeyssens) as well as Marijke Pinoy as Ben’s beleaguered mother, and Virlindin has a beautiful otherworldly quality which is perfect for the real life avatar of Scarlight.
The best thing about this film is where it does not go. It does not ask you to pity anyone. It does not tread on ground already covered in films such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and I was very relieved by that. Instead what we get is a touching portrait of a young man struggling to find out what normal means to him, and where this story really succeeds is in the pacing of the film. The scenes play out with such a paranoid tautness that it feels very much like a thriller, and perhaps that’s what it is. Ben is trying to escape, and thanks to a few inspired twists (and one fairly contrived one) the resolution is very satisfying.
I know this is not the kind of film I usually cover, and generally I leave anything with a heavy dramatic tone like this alone. Going into it I was fascinated by the video game aspect of the film, and its quirky inclusion does provide the film an extra layer. However Ben X turned out to be a film that surpasses its gimmick, and actually managed to bring me a greater understanding of what is a rather complex subject while being highly entertaining.