BEN X (Nic Balthazar). 93 minutes. Opens Friday (April 18). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NN
First-time director Nic Balthazar has already worked this fact-based material as a novel and a play. At bottom, he seems to be making a plea for tolerance and understanding for the autistic; what he’s put on the screen is a merely okay problem drama.
Teenage Ben (well played by newcomer Greg Timmermans) has Asperger syndrome. He functions, but he doesn’t speak or understand non-verbal cues. His only solace is an online game where his avatar is a hero. His only friend is a fellow gamer he’s never met. He’s cracking up under the daily bullying at school, and neither parents nor teachers understand him or the extent of his peril. Tragedy looms.
Balthazar flip-flops between treating this as a case study, with lots of interview-style statements from the relevant adults, and a subjective character portrait delivered via Ben’s voice-over and game imagery.
Neither approach is particularly compelling, and each undercuts the other. The case study offers too little information and suffers one giant plausibility problem: why doesn’t Ben just change schools? The character study stays simple and static until, late in the movie, Ben decides to take action. Until then, we’re mostly watching the torment of an innocent.
At the last minute, Balthazar pulls out a surprise ending that’s pure movie fantasy. It’s clever, funny and uplifting, but it’s as phony as any tacked-on Hollywood ending.