Benjamin: A bittersweet gem
James R | On 15, Mar 2019
Director: Simon Amstell
Cast: Colin Morgan, Phénix Brossard
Read our interview with Simon Amstell here.
Simon Amstell impressed with his directorial debut, Carnage, a mockumentary about veganism that premiered on BBC iPlayer. Now, he takes on more conventional fare with this low-key tale of a young filmmaker trying to make his second movie. While a vaguely autobiographical indie featuring romantic and artistic dilemmas sounds familiar, though, Amstell finds raw, awkward honesty in this delicately painful comedy.
Amstell’s smartest decision is to remain behind the camera, not because he’s a bad screen presence, but because the person he does cast as his pseudo-self is so good: Colin Morgan, who’s left Merlin far behind with roles such as Humans, is a wonderful bundle of neuroses, bringing a quiet candidness to Benjamin that makes him both antisocial and sympathetic. So troubled is his eponymous director that the 20-something not only finds himself in the midst of a professional crisis but an existential one too – he spends half his time locked up in his flat alone watching YouTube videos of a monk. And when a film about someone watching YouTube videos of a monk is entertaining, you know you’re onto a good thing.
There’s some brilliantly observed comedy in the process of premiering his disastrous sophomore movie, from the difficulty of introducing a film infront of an audience to actual clips of the film itself. But just as that threatens to get too unbearable – Benjamin’s breakout star from his first movie has naturally gone on to bigger, more famous things – Amstell deftly crosses our hero’s paths with musician Noah (a superb Phénix Brossard), who takes Benjamin from philosophical dread to swooning affection. It’s in the intersection of these things that Amstell finds a rich vein of humour and heart, with their interactions, and Benjamin’s gradual opening up, sparking exchanges that are both laugh-out-loud and, at times, profoundly tragic. Amstell’s razor-wire dialogue is matched by his downbeat direction, and some astute song choices, including a rare but deseved outing for Hanson’s 1998 single, Weird.
You can almost feel the weight of intimacy and personal intensity starting to lift through the film’s short but absorbing runtime – from the pit of one man’s inner despair emerges a whirlwind of laughter and sadness that’s caustic, cathartic and endlessly quotable. Roll on a third film, please.