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Bullied Game Boy Seeks Diversion

MOVIE REVIEW
Ben X (2007)

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Film Movement

Most think the gradual democratization of the media and its resources is a good thing, but one can always find a downside. Take bullying for instance, which has reached whole new levels thanks to the advent of accessible technology. Such horrible activities, once confined to a dark corner of the playground, can now be recorded and broadcast to a generally outraged society. "Happy-slapping" (surely the most oxymoronic of terms) videos can be beamed from cell phone to cell phone, or uploaded to the likes of YouTube, turning the Internet into an instrument of humiliation as opposed to illumination.

The teenage hero of "Ben X" has this brought home to him when he discovers footage of himself – naked from the waist down and jeered at by his fellow pupils – on the wide-eyed Web. For Ben (Greg Timmermans), this is just the latest in a daily ritual of bullying which begun when he was a young child. He considers himself to be “the boy who is always wrong,” but in actual fact Ben is very special. He is an Aspergers sufferer with brilliant mental abilities but unable to deal with people. Sadly, the young tend to rate social interaction higher than intellectualism, so Ben regularly finds himself victimized.

With society unwilling to accept him, Ben retreats into the realm of fantasy through online gaming. He may be nobody in the real world, but in the game "Archduke," he has reached level 80 and is still climbing. His online avatar is a brawny knight in tarnished armor, both victor and hero. He has also won the affections of Scarlite (Laura Verlinden), a fellow gamer who has never met the boy behind the pixels but has fallen for him anyway. Her pursuit of Ben and the chance of a meeting between the two give proceedings a rare glimmer of hope.

When Ben is forced to leave the house, he cocoons himself in technology; his ears reverberating to the music on his MP3 player and his eyes watching the world through the display screen on his video camera. It is this fusion of reality and fantasy that provides "Ben X" with its most original moments. Ben interprets events by the laws of the video game he plays so obsessively. Consequently, the film’s images are spliced with the digital dreams that race through his head, turning flesh-and-blood enemies into cartoon ogres who are only slightly more monstrous than the real thing. As the boy becomes more unstable, so the fantasy images become more frequent and threaten to take over, inspiring him to turn a crucifix into a weapon of vengeance. Jesus, the film seems to suggest, was the ultimate victim of bullying.

Ben is played well by Mr. Timmermans with staring, twitching eyes, lank dark hair and jerky body movements. He comes across as a sort of Belgian Jake Gyllenhaal if you can imagine such a thing. This is the actor’s first role on film, but it is a showy enough role to see him go international in the future.

The director Nic Balthazar is also a features debutante with his previous CV including some time working as a film critic. Luckily, he does a good enough job here to avoid any "those who can’t teach" accusations. He is especially adept at showing the world from Ben’s point of view and how the boy focuses on the little nuances of an environment that he otherwise seems to be absent from.

There is more to the film than mere visual flourish, as it does make some salient points on the topic of bullying. Ben is badly let down by the state. His mother longs to send him to a special school, but instead he has been sent to a succession of "normal" schools which fail to recognize his true talents. As the story progresses, the bullying becomes more intense and uncomfortable. A number of talking heads pass retrospective comment on events and seem to signpost an impending unhappy ending.

What actually happens at the end is the film’s major weakness. There is a sudden and jarring change in tone which lessens the impact of what has gone before, with a twist that does not quite work. This is a shame as up to this point "Ben X" is a pretty interesting piece of cinema. At least it signs off on an astute observation. The media, the film suggests, only become interested in bullying when it is far too late and there is little left to do but mourn.

BEN X

Opens on Oct. 24 in New York and on Aug. 29 in Britain.

Written (in Dutch with English subtitles) and directed by Nic Balthazar; director of photography, Lou Berghmans; edited by Philippe Ravoet; music by Praga Khan; produced by Burny Bos, Peter Bouckaert, Erwin Provoost, Michiel de Rooij and Sabine Veenendaal; released by Film Movement (United States) and Momentum Pictures (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes.

WITH: Greg Timmermans (Ben) and Laura Verlinden (Scarlite).

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