There are some remarkable portrayals of mentally challenged characters on the big screen from Hollywood: Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man; Tom Hanks in Forest Gump; Sean Penn in I am Sam; arguably Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. In Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan was compelling in My Name is Khan. It is not difficult to tell why this is so, since with such characters, there is a chance of exploiting their range without the aid of a script meaning the glory is theirs and not shared by the screenwriter. In other words, perhaps due to the inherent difficulty of verbal communication of such characters, nuances in physical dimensions of the role can be explored. Admittedly, it is a slippery slope—there is always the possibility of turning the role into a self-parody à la Adam Sandler; still this narrow margin of error is a challenge to great actors.
After seeing Ben X at the 2012 European Film Festival, currently running in Abuja, I am adding Greg Timmermans to the honour roll of great portrayals of the mentally ill. Mr. Timmermans plays Ben who is constantly bullied in school because he is different- this is a point to note, since people generally believe it is a question of size; he deals with the endless taunts by pretending he is a character in an online game and his classmates are villains. He also plays the game after school with an online friend, Scarlite whom he has idealized as his savior. When he is bullied and his pants taken off in front of class, the incident filmed and uploaded to the internet, he decides he has to do something drastic. Something as drastic as suicide? Murder? Exile?
Filmed like a documentary, where witnesses to his life, including his parents, some classmates and teachers are interviewed, it recalls the structure of Stephen King’s Carrie and Lynn Ramsay’s film, We Need to Talk About Kevin in the way the central incident is talked about but not shown till much later. It is a problematic method as frequently the shrouded incident turns out to be anticlimactic. The choice of this narrative technique becomes evident at the denouement at which point it appears director Nic Balthazar (who also wrote the novel on which the film is based) cares so much about the message that he sacrifices what could have been a shocking ending for a subtle one that allows the central theme of ‘bullying is dangerous’ to receive attention.
It is a choice that might annoy most cinema purists and gratify those who love message driven art. That said, even the former group cannot complain excessively considering the terrific performance of Timmermans: his back is hunched; his face is not so much plastic as is plasticine—allowing a variety of contortions; his eyes are blinking, when they are open they are vacant or cowering in fear of another attack; even his hair is acting. Greg Timmerman’s is Ben, period. As much as his performance was great throughout, a particular scene stands out: Ben is waiting for a bus when the two main bullies carry him to a playground and assault him, when he fights them, he is subdued, and a hallucinogenic pill with the aid of an attacker’s saliva is chucked down his throat. His mother comes late to his rescue, she stares at him, anguish on her face as half frustrated and half delirious he utters a monologue made great by the slurring manner of his speech and the gentle strokes of his palm as he wipes his mother’s tears. In the space of few minutes, Ben goes through a wider range of emotions than most characters do not manage over the course of a movie and Greg Timmerman will make us believe.
After the monologue they leave the scene but the scene does not, will not leave the viewer’s mind.
Though the initial novel was inspired by a real suicide caused by bullying- a universal problem- and hence cannot escape didacticism as it dips and rises on its way to the revelation of Ben’s plan, it is Timmerman’s acting as powerfully demonstrated in that scene that anchors and elevates it beyond its readymade confinements.
It is a Belgian gift. We are thankful.