“Benjamin” opens on a film within a film, the long-awaited sophomore feature by thirtysomething Irish director Benjamin Oliver (Colin Morgan), whose once-clamorous career buzz has slowed to a murmur. The scene we’re shown looks promising enough: a tartly worded lovers’ argument between two men, one played by Benjamin himself, diffidently explaining his existential struggles with the very concept of romance. The film, titled “No Self,” turns out to be semi-autobiographical account of the director’s gay dating troubles in modern London; the same is true of “Benjamin,” which is self-effacingly written and directed by gifted British comedian Simon Amstell. This doubling creates a wry hall-of-mirrors effect: Amstell sees himself in his protagonist, who in turn would like to see himself that clearly.
In the final edit, Benjamin screws up his film, muddying a simple relationship story with pretentious, unrelated spiritual noodlings involving a Buddhist monk — to the exasperation of once-supportive critics and his no-nonsense producer (Anna Chancellor) alike. Amstell, happily, does no such thing: Appealingly restrained and perfectly shaped at under 90 minutes, “Benjamin” maintains its softly barbed wit and sweet-and-sour intimacy to the end, bringing its shambolic eponymous hero to the brink of self-realization, minus any pat platitudes or learning of lessons. It’s Amstell’s debut feature, not counting his inspired vegan-themed mockumentary “Carnage,” made in 2017 for the BBC’s iPlayer streaming service: He’ll have high expectations of his own to meet next time out.
When asked what his plainly doomed new movie is about, Benjamin offers the kind of line that makes his glib, officious publicist Billie (Jessica Raine, a gin-sharp delight) despair: “It’s a film about my inability to love.” Not an elevator pitch that would pique the interest of any investor, it’s even worse as introductory small talk with a cute new guy. Yet that’s exactly the glaring red flag Benjamin holds up when he meets Noah (Phénix Brossard), a young French musician who looks like he’s stepped out of a Saint Laurent ad, but whose inner gawkiness doesn’t match his chic exterior. (Benjamin, a friend jokes, likes his lovers “weak and well-lit,” though he merits much the same description.) Despite an age difference of around a decade, Benjamin and Noah are awkward peas in a pod: They could be soulmates if they’d stop shyly talking themselves, and then each other, out of getting closer.
From this delicate premise, “Benjamin” wrings a lot of warmly perceptive, occasionally acidic humor. The film might be termed a romantic comedy, though the will-they-won’t-they dynamic that usually powers the genre feels beside the point here. Beguiling as Noah is, thanks to Brossard’s fey, fragile performance, it’s Benjamin’s volatile relationship with himself that gives Amstell’s script its subtle tension.
As a case study in drab everyday depression, Benjamin may divide audiences just as he divides those around him. Some will be fully sympathetic when he suggests unconfidently to Noah that they try “just being people,” while others will echo the eye-rolling impatience of his producer: “What is all this pain that you’re in? Are you really in pain?” Yet both camps may want to applaud when Benjamin is eventually, most emphatically, called out on his solipsism: In a blazing single-scene performance as his most recent ex-boyfriend, so expletive-laced as to be unquotable, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett all but leaves scratch marks on the screen as he pithily warns Noah that he’ll likely be discarded too.
In a film largely, but not vainly, preoccupied with the self, that scene is a stark reminder of the hurt one’s insecurities can cause to others. Amstell doesn’t overly flatter his onscreen alter ego, and neither does Morgan’s beautifully shaded performance, which shows how Benjamin’s anxious sweetness and will-o’-the-wisp allure can emerge as brattish petulance in the wrong crowd or the wrong light. Not that there’s much of the latter from cinematographer David Pimm, whose gorgeous, dusky compositions capture the low neon shimmer of a London bar or the oddly comforting gloom of a shabby Victorian studio apartment with only a moderate shift in palette.
Amstell may have sketched a keen self-portrait in his debut feature, but anyone who’s dated around London’s nominal hipster scene of slumped warehouse events and pop-up dumpling bars will find much to recognize in it. That goes for the film’s affectionately dead-on sense of place, navigated by a tangle of night buses, or the droll way Amstell articulates the city’s evasive social etiquette, where a simple invitation to dinner isn’t met with acceptance or refusal, but a pithy, perplexed question to which no one really knows the answer: “What do you mean?”