directed by Nic Balthazar
starring Greg Timmermans, Marijke Pinoy, Laura Verlinden
There are few animals nastier than humans, and the most bloodthirsty humans are youngsters with a mentally challenged fellow to harass. Ben’s (Timmermans) autism makes school a living hell, and he retreats into the world of computer RPG’s to find a peace in waging battles he has a chance of wining. There he finds a virtual girlfriend Scarlite (Verlinden), a big honking sword, and a place to focus his energies without the disruption of real reality. In school he’s beaten, spat upon, and generally tortured by Desmet (Maarten Claeyssens) and Bogaert (Titus De Voogdt), the Beavis and Butthead of Flanders. His mother (Pinoy) tries to protect him, but it’s no use — she can’t defend him forever, and he’ll have to support himself somehow. As Bogaert and Desmet turn up the heat, his virtual girlfriend attempts to contact him in the real world. Whether she actually meets him in the flesh is quite opaque, but even her virtual presence helps him find a focus, rally his forces, and find some degree of vengeance. As digital therapy goes, it’s fairly effective.
I’m no fan of “mentally challenged” movies, but Ben X gripped me from the opening scene to the final triple cross writer director Balthazar set up and executed flawlessly. Balthazar blurs the line between gaming and reality, and Ben’s sometime one dimensional life makes more sense when rendered in digital polygons. The movie is sprinkled with very disturbing scenes of bullying and the ineffective response the school makes to contain it. Ben’s inability to communicate even his most primal needs to other humans makes his situation worse — everyone knows SOMEthing is wrong, but until it gets filmed and blasted ‘cross the ‘net, he’s little more than a football to his classmates. If you ever wanted to know what would make a kid shoot up a school, this is as good a case study as you might find.
Supporting Timmermans we see a superb cast — Pinoy’s Mother is weary and worn from her son’s condition, the bullies suitably pimply and awkward, and Scarlite is charming and sexy in the way a first love should be. The transitions into game play are seamless; even if you don’t play there’s no question as to what is happening at any moment, although you may not be able to decide which side of the screen you’re on. The writing is excellent as well; Ben X never slips into either mawkishness or a heartwarming triumph. There’s triumph enough, but it’s the sort of sly double cross of a really well thought out practical joke, and that joke plays out on both the tormentors and the film audience. This is an exceptional film — one of these a year is enough to justify the Film Movement subscription.