Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Film Review: 'Ben X' – 8.5/10

Film Review: Drama (2007)
'Ben X'
Written by Joé McKen on Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Greg Timmermans plays an autistic boy with difficulties separating virtual reality from real life in Nic Balthazar's 2007 drama Ben X.

Every morning before breakfast, Ben (Greg Timmermans) wakes up and spends about an hour on ArchLord, an online roleplaying computer game on which he's now attained level 80 – which, for those who don't know, is really freakin' good. He is universally respected, is nigh unbeatable, and even has a sort of "girlfriend", a pretty "healer" known as Scarlite (Laura Verlinden). They share a close emotional bond, with Scarlite helping Ben through some of the tough patches of his life – because that's seemingly all his life is made of.

Following that, he cleans up briefly in the bathroom, while he stares at his image in the mirror, thinking about how a big loser takes up all the visible space in the reflective glass. He straps on a heart monitor – not that it helps with his stress; it just tells him how much stress he's under. He then takes a few bites of toast with his resigned but caring mother (Marijke Pinoy), is kissed goodbye while irked by his little brother, then steps out of his home into the streets as he prepares for his walk and bus-ride to school.

If you think a regular teenager's life is tough, try being an autistic teen. Specifically, a teen with heavy Asperger's, diagnosed by a doctor relatively late in Ben's childhood, to whom routine is the only way to survive in the hellish world he's stuck in as he understands no-one and no-one understands him in return. As his mother says – 'He doesn't have a problem with his autism. It's people he has a problem with.'. Specifically, bullies – which, in Ben's case as an emotionally shut and disabled high school student, is nearly everyone in his class. He's particularly antagonized by two cruel boys who do all they can to make his life a living hell until he returns home to relative safety and comfort and withdraws into his videogame, with Scarlite.

Nic Balthazar sculpted this movie into one of the most powerful and accurate depictions of Asperger's/Autism I've ever seen, and being an "Aspie" myself (albeit much milder a case than poor Ben), this is a story I can't help but relate to as I see the poor boy go through all the hell that no kid should ever be submitted to. Being ridiculed, brutalized and humiliated beyond redemption, because he is either unwilling or unable to defend himself. I will admit I've had some dark times in my own school years, which mercifully are behind me now, yet even though I was never tormented to that extent, this movie had the horrible knack of opening old wounds in me that I would have preferred to have forgotten all about years ago.

I don't mean to turn this review into a plea or a sorry narrative of my own much-hated schoolyears. I call attention to this, not as a cry for sympathy, but to draw attention to the immense emotional power this movie holds. This film does not hold back any punches when it comes to showing just how hard life is for those sorry individuals who are afflicted with autism – unable to communicate and understand what's going on, or how to change it. Some scenes will make you laugh, some might make you weep, and still others will profoundly outrage and shock you. They certainly did to me – but then I've always had a tendency to strongly react with "persecution films".

One day, after a particularly, horrifically vicious bout of torment that ends with Ben lost, mugged, bruised and high on drugs that were crammed down his throat, he goes to to an arranged meeting with the ever-faithful (and pretty) Scarlite, and once she's eliminated his dark thoughts of suicide (which he had apparently been planning for quite some time), they start planning his revenge – but what he has in store for his tormentors is nothing you will have seen coming. It's a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense's end scene in which the true sense of the iconic phrase 'I see dead people' is finally revealed.

Greg Timmermans brings us the most realistic depiction of an autistic individual I've ever seen so far in a film. Dustin Hoffman gave us Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, and while it was a very strong film in itself, his portrayal seemed a bit caricatured at times; he showed virtually all of autism's standard symptoms, which is sort of faulty as no victim of autism or Asperger's ever really shows all the signs. Here we see Ben, we see through is eyes, we hear his thoughts, and I for one can assure you the incarnation is as close to perfect as an actor will likely ever get.

The film is Belgian, and the version I watched was in French – oddly, the film doesn't have an English dub, which certainly explains its lack of publicity and recognition in America. This didn't deter from the experience however – a language really is just a way of communicating ideas and meanings; watch it in whichever tongue you understand best and you will be guaranteed a deeply powerful and moving experience about a tragic tale that truly does happen far, far too often in real life. Everyone's known a Ben now and then. The movie works exceedingly well at raising that old question: if you see people harassing an innocent person, would you step in, or let it carry on?

I know what I would do.

For bringing us such a great film that truly exposes bullying in all its horror, I give Film Movement LLC's Ben X 8.5 Endgames out of 10.

Ben: Greg Timmermans • Scarlite: Laura Verlinden • Mother: Marijke Pinoy
Crew & Credits
Director(s): Nic Balthazar] • Writer(s): Nic Balthazar • Original Score: Praga Khan
General Information
Distributed by: Film Movement LLC • Released: September 26, 2007 (US) • Running Time: 93 mins


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