A severely withdrawn, possibly autistic teen views his school tormentors as videogame combatants in “Ben X.” Belgian-Dutch mix of fantasy computer graphics (from actual game “Overlord”), classic misfit-vs.-bullies youth drama, hyperactive p.o.v. and some overly twisty plot developments doesn’t quite cohere in a tale that might have allowed more suspension of disbelief in its prior novel and play incarnations. Still, pic’s reception in Montreal (where it won three awards, including the Grand Prix) proved it’s a potential crowd-pleaser that could appeal to auds predisposed toward the likes of “Donnie Darko.” European theatrical sales are very likely; elsewhere, DVD seems more probable.
Diagnosed with autism variant Asperger’s syndrome — though to his long-suffering, divorced mother (Marijke Pinoy) that’s just the latest useless term doctors have provided over a decade of unhelpful diagnoses — Ben (newcomer Greg Timmermans) is hardly a typical adolescent. He never speaks, save to mom and a little brother. Though he gets high grades, he is viewed as “Frankenstein” and “the Martian” by classmates at the regular high school his father (Pol Goossen) insisted he attend.
Ben’s only solace is the time spent playing sword-and-sorcery game “Overlord,” where he can be the fearless hero slaying foes left and right. The closest thing he has to a friendship is with “Scarlite,” a female online gamer he’s never met.
One day, when the teacher is away from the classroom, loutish bullies Bogaert (Titus De Voogdt) and Desmet (Maarten Claeyssens) make Ben stand on a desk and de-pants him — while everyone takes cell-phone photos. Unable to bring himself to tell mom or school authorities what happened, Ben seems to be edging toward violent revenge or suicide, or simply disappearing for keeps into his fantasy world.
How this somehow works its way toward a happy ending involves a lot of card-shuffling by helmer Nic Balthazar, including the introduction of a major character who may or may not be imaginary (the film handles the ambiguity rather clumsily) and a prankishly vengeful climax. Both these key elements strain belief, since they suggest Ben is capable of logical thinking quite beyond anything so far witnessed in a pic that’s almost entirely from his p.o.v. Still, many viewers will identify with this ultimate sensitive-loner figure enough to overlook such credibility gaps.
Making a film directorial debut following the success of his hero in literary and theatrical form, Balthazar gets first-class help from pro contributors. Timmermans does OK with the somewhat thankless job of keeping Ben on the jittery edge of a total meltdown.
Supporting perfs are solid. Tech package is slick.