Belgian director Nic Balthazar calls Ben X, his film about a mildly autistic teenager, “a film with a message”. It is also highly entertaining, visually stunning, and immensely moving. Ben is a high school student with Asperger’s syndrome who retreats into a fantasy world of computer games in order to cope with the vicious and cruel bullying by his class mates. In a quite magnificent way, the film explores the boundaries between different worlds which can be as solid as brick walls: Ben’s inner world, his perception of himself, is completely and utterly divorced from the reality he finds himself in; he cannot relate to others in a “normal”, acceptable manner. While this may be a bane of the human condition — we all feel to a lesser or higher degree that ultimately, no other person can totally understand who we really are — Ben’s case is painfully extreme. He can’t play the game of being a “cool kid”, and his peers can’t relate to somebody who is different. The fear of standing out, not fitting in, probably contributes to the brutality and cruelty with which some of Ben’s school mates treat him.
Doing a bit of reserch about this movie, I came across the term Happy slapping, a disturbing practice that came up around 2005 and is appallingly popular. It involves a victim who is being deliberately attacked for the purpose of recording the event with a mobile phone. Some incidents have been extremely violent, to the extent that some victims have even been killed. I was rather shocked to read about this practice, and it explained why I found the term “bullying” almost too mild in relation to this movie. The bullies that I remember had their admirers and followers around them, and against this background they felt strong enough to push people around. But it was generally easy to avoid and sidestep them. Basically, they were just plain stupid. In this film, there was a level of psychological cruelty and torment involved that surpassed anything I ever had encountered.
Apparently, the film has done an enormous favor to people who are “different”. In Belgium, for example, three out of four teenagers have seen it, it’s been shown in schools, and discussions about bullying follow the viewing. Parents of mildly autistic children as well as their therapists have commented on the marvelous and accurate portrayal of Ben by Greg Timmermans, a young man who had never stood in front of a camera before. The supporting roles are also well cast, and visually this film is quite remarkable in terms of merging the virtual reality of computer role-playing games (in this case, Archlord) with every-day reality.
The following words of Nic Balthazar sum up the relevance of the movie: “For me the film isn’t really about autism, it’s about what we do as a society to everyone who has a problem functioning and to all the people we call the nerds, the geeks and the dorks because they’re not what everyone else is. It’s the fascism of cool. The fascism of being ‘normal’. That is for me the real theme of the film.”