We have seen a fair few British comedians direct feature films recently (Matt Holness, Stephen Merchant, Joe Cornish). Now stand-up comic Simon Amstell takes his turn in the chair with this droll, sardonic yet touching comedy-drama about a twenty-something film director in the throes of an identity crisis. We first meet Benjamin (Colin Morgan) acting and directing his debut feature and then stressing about it in the Edit. He is then unravelled as a careworn artist locked in a self-reflective/ perpetuating existential meltdown, before meeting Noah (Phénix Brossard): a young indie singer with whom he becomes infatuated.
The film then follows their love story, entwining with the protagonist’s emotional vacillation. Amstell’s script also feels as much a commentary on the art/ media industry as it is an emotional character study. It could even be interpreted as a live, heightened account of his own writing process, buffered with worst case scenarios of what could occur following his film’s completion. This conceivably cathartic method shapes Benjamin into a rich, wry and comical incursion into a hollow industry as well as a biting comedy drama about love and instability.
Benjamin’s public mental cessation is frank and often unapologetically inharmonious, which viewers may relate to in this age of online dating, social networking and mobile/net addiction. Ben doesn’t fit snuggly into his cultural milieu. He is partial to dropping the odd clanger at soirees and looks constantly anxious and perplexed, but has a clique of friends and colleagues who do their best to keep him serene, despite being preoccupied with their own complications. These supporting characters and their conflicts are also amazingly played and utilised, with refined arcs to ensure there is next to no maudlin.
Colin Morgan plays Benjamin as a socially inept, dropping faux pas like F bombs during Sunday service, as he is edged out of his comfort zone and into the film/ celebrity limelight. Meanwhile dramas between hollow industry nodes do more than dot the backdrop, but contextualise and augment Benjamin’s world, reinforcing it as some kind of metaphorical antagonist for him to be up against. As Benjamin and Noah’s relationship evolves and his completed film nears its premiere, circumstances change forcing Benjamin into a sequel to his spiral of self-destruction.
Ben takes magic mushrooms alone, talks to his cat and watches self-help videos due to his subjection. He attempts to find answers to his problems online which the real world can’t provide. This highlights a reoccurring sadness is also inherent within some supporting characters who are putting on smiles. Benjamin’s film, titled No Self, is also about the loss of self-esteem. Amstell’s film often flows inharmoniously (like it’s characters) in terms of narrative, and sometimes seems slightly unsure of itself. This is both beneficial and detrimental as it is paradoxically these crises that strengthen Benjamin with an odd complexity and substance for viewers to connect with.
Amstell crafts comedy, characters and their idiosyncrasies in a manner that few films seem to do so aptly. Not by exaggerating or sensationalising their anxiety, but by showing it as raw, harmful and repressed in a way that sometimes feels quite trying when combined with the comedy. But Benjamin is brave and doesn’t shy from these awkward moments which are not just utilised for car crash/ comic affect, but shape the nature of the film itself, to make it a fascinating watch. In short, Amstell has crafted a debut feature as good as the aforementioned comedian turned directors’, for Benjamin is bleak, unique, often hilarious and well worth catching on the big screen.
Benjamin – in cinemas & on digital 15th March 2019.
Read our interview with Simon Amstell here.
Words by Daniel Goodwin @privateutopias.