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In his native Belgium, film critic and novelist turned filmmaker Nic Balthazar notes 10% of teens have admitted they've attempted suicide at some point with roughly the same percentage acknowledging the fact that “they are afraid to open e-mails because they don’t know what torture awaits them." It's a shocking statistic to say the least and one that seems universally urgent as well given the boom in cyber bullying.
While undoubtedly, action was needed to be taken, the former critic admits that he was an unlikely choice to address this in book form. Having been asked by the Ministry of Education to write a book about bullying in order to strike a chord with the hard-to-reach Flemish youth who dislike reading, Balthazar-- who jokes “that a lot of real writers probably declined before they got to me”—accepted the challenge to engage those who don’t read since he calls himself a “writer who does not write.”
However, the man who said that he is “religiously convinced that you should say yes to everything you are offered,” also acknowledges in the press notes for Ben X, his related belief that sometimes “you do not find the story, the story finds you,” and as far as this film is concerned, it “may well have been the case here.”
Inspired by the unspeakably tragic true story of a mildly autistic 17-year-old boy who jumped off Ghent’s Gravensteen castle as what he assumed was the only suitable response to have been “virtually… harassed and tormented to death”—although Balthazar shares that they boy's mother understandably noted in an interview that she “will never get over this,” Balthazar was moved to act.
Despite the fact that his project “would not give her any real comfort,” the critic turned author hoped it “would nevertheless provide her with a measure of sympathy and understanding” with his decision that “it would be a story about the harassment and torture of those who are unable to defend themselves.”
Using the Flemish title “Niets Was Alles Wat Hij Zei,” which translates in English to “Nothing Was All He Said,” the book was later transferred into a successful new-media styled stage production before ultimately MMG, Belgium’s “biggest production” company decided that they wanted to turn the work into a feature film.
With Balthazar at the helm in his debut as a director and also working with some of the same cast and crew of his stage production along with a brilliant newcomer—the film’s sensational lead actor Greg Timmermans-- the film festival smash which was shot in just 25 days also became Belgium’s official submission to the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language Film category.
A startling and often harrowing work of unblinking authenticity-- we follow our main character Ben as he struggles to cope with the endless cruelty and bullying from countless tormentors in his high school class. Perpetually trying to keep a low profile and hardly speaking, Ben—who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome-- only seems to come alive when losing himself as his alter-ego with a dashing avatar, winning in medieval battles in the computer game ArchLord.
Filled with impressive effects that take you inside the game and Ben’s world as he mixes the real-life events with the video game he plays at every spare moment with his beguiling cyber gal pal “Scarlite”-- the most obvious comparison for Ben X that is virtually repeated in nearly every review is to liken Balthazar’s film to Donnie Darko.
Given a terrific twist ending that fits in with the director’s self-proclaimed M. Night Shymalan Sixth Sense aspirations, however-- the ultimate payoff of Ben X teaches a valuable moral that makes it seem like to could definitely achieve Darko like cult status if more high school students watched foreign films but I’m not entirely sure t’s genuine.
As some critics have pointed out and those familiar with the disease acknowledge—and this is hard to discuss without giving anything away—it seems a bit unlikely that Ben would be able to logically pull off and/or communicate such an elaborate finale as his main source of communication is solely with the computer game and not the outside world (as we see when he’s unable to speak to Scarlite and others).
And although you’ll want to continue the cinematic prerequisite of "suspension of disbelief" because it’s just such a good twist, ultimately it’s in the getting there that makes the film seem so daunting since it’s a rather brutal, no-holds-barred and unflinching view at the most horrific of bullying as Ben finds himself exposed to all of his classmates who eagerly capture the moment on their cell phone cameras before he's force-fed drugs, etc.
However, Balthazar's motive is excellent and takes an intriguing thriller like approach in lieu of other films in the same vein such as Kidulthood, Twelve and Holding, and Elephant as he walks a fine line in the goal of depicting both “sides of technology." While being that it was from Film Movement, my initial comparison was to the phenomenal Morlang from a few years back but this film (while not as good) feels far more contemporary in-- as the director hopes-- promoting an open dialogue of what the filmmaker warns is the global “fascism of cool” that involves “a widespread distrust of not just anyone different but anyone perceived as being intelligent."
And ultimately, the movie comes off as a great magic trick with everyone involved waving the wand for the right reasons but this being said, it’s hardly a work you’ll be able to sit through more than once except maybe to watch the last thirty minutes one more time.
Throughout, the movie is anchored by a solid portrayal frrom the gifted Timmermans in a role that should launch him to even bigger work and strengthened by excellent production values including top-notch special effects in bringing ArchLord into the narrative as well as a good soundtrack which incorporates the melancholy, trippy and haunting Icelandic band Siguor Ros.
And while I applaud the film’s aim in calling attention to bullying and especially in the cases of those who are unable to defend themselves—it’s a rather trying cinematic experience that in the end reminded me as an adult just how helpless we all are if we don’t actively get involved to try and change things in the schools.
Beneficial as a work that will hopefully inspire you to act, as long as you don’t fixate too much on the film itself and whether or not the big “trick” would’ve actually made sense—all in all, despite its overwhelming sense of depression, it’s a work I can definitely recommend to parents hopefully to watch along with their teens. Additionally it should be of particular interest to high schools to screen in an attempt to get more people talking about the things we see on a daily basis but most of us ignore (although hopefully they’re not on this horrific of a level).
Brought to viewers around the globe by Film Movement, Ben X is coupled with Ben Shelton's YouTube award-winning My Name is Lisa which is a thematically similar medical issues related short film that again takes a unique look at very contemporary situations through a creative and young eye.