Many films have tried to examine the relationship between the real and the online worlds of its characters, and most have failed spectacularly. Those films are filled with outdated concepts of the net and often ridiculous speculation about what may be possible. A growing subgenre is developing which takes the online world and its impact on real life seriously not hysterically, and Ben X fits well and truly within that group.
Ben (Greg Timmermans) is a young man growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that allows for high intelligence but social ineptitude. He is bullied mercilessly in his high school, and in spite of the obvious distress this is causing him his parents and doctors feel it is better for him to be integrated in a ‘normal’ school than to go to a ‘special’ one. His one escape is playing the MMORPG game ‘Archlord’, allowing him to immerse himself in environments he understands and perform at a far higher level than in real life. When the bullying invades his successful online lifestyle, however, he may be pushed to breaking point.
Ben X is successful in several areas, with the most striking being its blending of the online and real worlds. Ben’s imagination often places him in ‘Archlord’ environments even when he’s at school, and the lead bullies may be visualised as grotesque orcs. Ben can call up armour and weapon menus in order to draw the strength needed to endure his tormentors, and his understanding of personality and sociology is grounded in the concept of avatars. This all works as a very successful way of examining the effect of Ben’s loneliness.
The story is told non-sequentially, with excerpts from retrospective interviews with Ben’s parents, teachers and schoolmates hinting at the disaster still to come. This technique is more and more commonplace, but it certainly works in Ben X to engender a sense of dread as the bullying continues and Ben’s isolation grows. The audience feels something just over the horizon, and each step generates even further anxiety. That the film finishes with a potent sting in the tail is the pay-off for the great build-up.
There are times when the bullying sequences aren’t as effective as they may have been and a sense that this has all been seen before, although it must be hard to address a topic such as bullying without treading a well-worn path. The occasional moments when credulity is stretched are outweighed by the performances and direction of the film that milk the most out of the material and form the basis of a genuinely enjoyable experience.Rating: