The majority of the population may claim to have an awareness of autism, however few have gained their understanding from experience. With the neurodevelopmental disorder afflicting approximately 0.2% of the global population, most will be more familiar with the media depiction of the condition, with their knowledge cultivated by film and television efforts on the topic. Although far from a popular subject in entertainment, a selection of efforts have attempted to convey the reality of autism, with Barry Levinson’s Oscar winner Rain Man, Elissa Down’s AFI award recipient The Black Balloon and the acclaimed HBO biopic Temple Grandin among the most well known. Others such as indie drama Snow Cake, action thriller Mercury Rising, South Korean feature Marathon, Bollywood film My Name Is Khan and Jet Li vehicle Ocean Heaven have approached the condition from a variety of angles, whilst Asperger’s offerings Mary And Max, Adam and Mozart And The Whale have shed light on different aspects of the disorder. Belgian drama Ben Xexplores the subject within the context of teen bullying, with writer / director Nic Balthazar bringing his own novel and play “Nothing Was All He Said” to the screen.
For Ben (Greg Timmermans, Dossier K.), his Asperger’s-like autism spectrum disorder is a part of him, however for the rest of the world his difference is all that they see. Mercilessly tormented at school by bullies Bogaert and Desmet (Small Gods‘ Titus De Voogdt and Quixote’s Island‘s Maarten Claeyssens) for the amusement of his classmates, he finds sanctuary in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game “ArchLord” under the pseudonym Ben X. Whilst his divorced mother (Marijke Pinoy, Sister Smile) frets about his social isolation, Ben is happy in his virtual haven. Hiding behind his level 80 ranked avatar, he befriends fellow gamer Scarlite (Laura Verlinden, The Last Summer), a kindred spirit and his only companion. Alas, his online refuge cannot save Ben from his offline agony, including savage beatings, forced drug consumption and a public humiliation worsened by the social networking nous of his peers. With his parents and teachers powerless to stop the torture, he begins to contemplate his own demise, with a real world connection with Scarlite assisting in putting his planned endgame into action.
Inspired by a true story, Ben X offers an impressive dissection of teen torment as seen through the eyes of the autistic protagonist. Adding a level of humanity not often seen in content about the demographic (think television’s Gossip Girl and 90210, with U.K. effort Skins the rare exception), Balthazar’s film is engaging and insightful, whilst being heartfelt, harrowing, moving and memorable as well. Using the juxtaposition of reality and computer simulated fantasy, as well as the parallel duality of the school yard and social networking, the feature ponders identity, acceptance, victimisation, vengeance, suicide and society, with each unravelled in a far from conventional fashion. Instead, the ambitious Montreal World Film Festival Grand Prix des Amériques winner subverts expectations whilst deliberately provoking a reaction from the audience, in a film that could be seen as the aesthetic and thematic predecessor to upcoming Australian feature Wasted On The Young, or the successor to Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. Turning in naturalistic performances, the cast aid Balthazar’s aim, with Timmermans effective in the lead. Perceptive and powerful, Ben X affords the debut director a promising first effort, whilst adding intelligence to its twin topics of autism and angst.
Ben X is screening as part of the Windows On Europe film festival, currently showing at Brisbane’s Dendy Portside until February 25 before touring Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne until April 2011.