Director: Nic Balthazar; Release date: out now
Ben X is a film about, as his onscreen psychologist puts it, "an extraordinary boy who every day has to try to be normal". Severely autistic, Ben suffers at the hands of school bullies and the concerned adults who have such difficulty in communicating with him. His only comfort is online video gaming, a controlled fantasy away from the increasing humiliations meted out at school, and where he fosters a friendship with the attractive and mysterious female gamer Scarlite. One particularly brutal attack at the hands of Ben's main tormentors coincides with Scarlite's decision to pay him a personal visit, and her sympathy with his frustrations leads them to plot an action that no one will forget.
Will Ben go through with killing himself? Or might his plans turn to bloody revenge? And is Scarlite really a guiding light, or an angry co-dependent?
This debut for Belgian director Nic Balthazar, based on his own novel, claims inspiration from real events. If said quickly, the title "Ben X" resembles the Dutch word "benniks", meaning "I am nothing". The aim of the film is to draw attention to the human experience of a condition marked by an inability to communicate normally.
But while the novel, or Mark Haddon's more familiar The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, can articulate the inner thought processes that accompany the daily routine of someone with autism, the film has to show them, and Ben X manages this with an admirable liveliness of style. Thus a more "objective" documentary style for the interviews with shell-shocked characters, speaking after Ben takes his decisive action, alternates with all manner of technical devices from Ben's point of view including zooms, distortion, rapid shifts in perspective and fantastic re-imaginings of everyday life as a video game.
This is where the film works most strongly, replicating dramatically the impressions and thought processes of the often silent main character to convey vividly the "invisible me" that Ben complains those close to him cannot see.
The film's progress revolves a little too much around the build-up to its final revelation, with many of the minor characters one-dimensional stepping stones on the way. The film does not ask why playgrounds become such nightmarish arenas for bullying, and consequently its noble plea for greater sensitivity preaches too simplistic a moral lesson.
Nevertheless Ben X is a heartfelt look at an important experience that is hardly ever broached in cinema, and the message about the difficulties of communication and compassion is, while focused on its autistic subject, a meaningful comment on teenage experience in general.