Ben X may seem like a predictably tragic computer nerd’s coming-of-age story but Nic Balthazar’s debut as a filmmaker is a smart, thoughtful tale about school bullying, mental distress and the social impact of online role-playing games. The ambitious themes are treated with great sensitivity and imaginative power in a tale that is both touching and beguiling, pushing beyond the form and frame of conventional feature-length fiction.
Sharing an apt (and somewhat detached) voice-over narration with other classic studies in teen angst such as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting and Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, Ben X opens with a powerful interweaving of lush 3D game graphics and live action. This, coupled with Ben’s commentary, beckons the audience in with an intriguing premise and then forces them to endure Ben’s painful reality by placing them right inside his head. Ben is affected by Asperger’s Syndrome and therefore is not able to communicate his thoughts properly through speech. He finds it hard to connect with the real world in any normal, straightforward way, making him the perfect target for the cruel games that his stronger classmates like to inflict on him. Incapable of striking back, Ben devises his own survival strategy by completely immersing himself in the 3D universe of ‘Archlord’, a massive multi-player game that allows one player to rise through the ranks to rule the world. His online avatar, Ben X, is as vigorous and brave as Ben’s real persona is introverted and anxious. In this custom-made fantasy world, even his wish for a friend seems to come true when online gamer Scarlite appears. Yet, still she cannot save him from the permanent bullying he faces at school and it looks like tragedy is inevitable.
Revisiting the source material of his own novel-turned-stage-play (based on true events), Balthazar has settled on film as the most suitable medium for the story. A dazzling blend of skilfully rendered computer graphics, punchy editing and impulsive sound makes for some extremely intense and powerful moments, especially at the beginning of the film. However, as the story progresses, leaving Ben with no choice other than to dive back into black despair, the pace decelerates and the final scenes succumb to over-the-top symbolism and pathos.
Ben X suffers most from Balthazar’s attempt to mix the animation and live action with a vérité documentary style. Snatches of interviews with Ben’s parents and friends are interspersed throughout the film, intending to enhance the story but failing to explain what we learn more poignantly through the deeply moving acting and narration. Played with spacey diffidence by Greg Timmermans, Ben never feels too comfortable in front of the camera but it is this very awkwardness that makes his character so endearing.
Despite the melodramatic overload, Ben X is wonderfully compelling whenever it relies on its lush visual and aural landscape. Not only does the semi-animated form allow Balthazar to comment on the desperation caused to young people by the horror of daily bullying in a manner that feels fresh and original, it also offers an astonishing insight into the adolescent mind. As such, Ben X is a film to savour, as soft-spoken, eccentric and smart as its main character and as satisfying in its visual details as it is in its larger intentions.