August is a hopeless month for movies — it’s when the big studios dump their worst films on us, pretty much — and so there is very little worth seeing, let alone reviewing. I did think about seeing the new Will Ferrell comedy, Step Brothers, but after catching the tail end of a trailer I thought: ‘Actually, I’d rather dash my head against a door jamb.’ And I did think about seeing the new Vin Diesel film, Babylon A.D., but then I caught the tail end of that trailer and thought, ‘Actually, I’d rather dash my head against a door jamb and then stuff my nostrils with a well known brand of soft cheese like, say, Boursin.’ It is probably unfair to judge a film on the tail end of its trailers, but it does save a lot of time plus the tenner it now costs to go to the cinema. It’s like judging a book by its cover, which is also probably unfair but I will add this: beware the paperback which has any kind of embossing on the front. It’s crap.
So, then, Ben X, which I had not seen a trailer for and knew nothing about, and so it had that going for it, at least. It turns out to be a Belgian film written and directed by a Nic Balthazar, a Flemish film critic and author who, in the press notes, writes: ‘It is sometimes said you do not find a story, the story finds you,’ which, as it happens, I know to be true. Indeed, I was once in Waitrose when a story found me, but being in something of a rush I’m afraid I said to it, ‘Be off. Scarper. Can’t you see I’m busy?’ That story turned out to be The Kite Runner. So all I’m saying is if a story does find you, make time for it unless, of course, it comes at you from behind an embossed cover, in which case run for it, and run for it like mad.
Ben X is not a jolly kind of film, based as it is on the story that found Balthazar; the true story of an autistic teenager who committed suicide due to hellish, merciless bullying at school. Balthazar, on reading of the boy’s death, responded by writing a novel for adolescents which, in turn, was transformed into a multi-media stage performance — what is it about ‘multi’ and ‘media’ and ‘stage’ and ‘performance’ in the same sentence that makes my heart sink a little? — and then into this, his directorial debut. And?
OK, the film opens with Ben (Greg Timmermans) — who is meant to be 16, 17, I think, but looks a disconcerting 25 — and Ben saying, ‘I never tell lies. Everything I say is true, even when I don’t say anything.’ Still trying to work that out? Me, too. Anyway, it then flashes forward in time to a television interview with his mother (Marijke Pinoy) complaining gravely that ‘someone always had to die first’ before anything happens, before wrongs are righted. We know we now have to get from here to there, but who will die, and how, and will they have really died anyway?
Ben, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and so finds it difficult to communicate or relate normally, is being violently bullied at his mainstream school, yet finds respite in an internet fantasy game, Archlord, where, as Ben X, he can find strength and respect and even friendship with another online player, Scarlite. As the school situation worsens, he increasingly retreats into the game, the lines between fantasy and reality become blurred, and, with help from his virtual world, he plans how to exact revenge on his tormentors.
Now, although the end of this film is seriously satisfying in terms of bullies getting their comeuppance — hurrah! — the journey is pretty bleak, rarely varies in tone and as for Ben, just as he struggles to relate to the world, how are we meant to relate to him? True enough, the computer visuals are neatly integrated, but as he increasingly morphs into his online character, we lose him more than we find him, if you get what I mean. It’s the kind of film that, if on telly late at night, and you found yourself in one of those inert states whereby climbing the stairs to bed seems too much trouble, you might be intrigued enough by its rawness to see it through to the end. But I’m not sure it is more than that.
Still, September next week, and better times ahead, surely. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some further words of top-rate wisdom: beware the restaurant menu that is bound in leatherette and involves a tassel. You are not going to have a good time.