Like many then-teenagers of the early 2000s, I recognise Simon Amstell from popular television shows of the time, most notably Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Popworld. Known for his sharp sarcastic wit, Amstell’s comedy never fails to entertain, so it would make sense for him to move from the world of TV stand-up to something longer in form. Making his feature-length debut in 2017 with Carnage, Amstell returns to the director’s chair with Benjamin, starring many familiar British indie faces.
Colin Morgan, best known for his stint as the title character in hit BBC series Merlin, takes on another titular role, this time as Benjamin, a young filmmaker who hit the big time on his first attempt. Suffering from a severe case of ‘second album syndrome’, he anxiously picks through minute after minute of his latest creation, much to the annoyance of his long-suffering editor Tessa (Anna Chancellor). When he’s not in the editing suite, he’s at home in his hip London flat, eating avocado on toast, spending time with his best friend Stephen (Joel Fry), or watching self-help videos on YouTube.
One evening, forced out of his anxiety bubble by his publicist Billie (Jessica Raine), Benjamin meets Noah (Phénix Brossard), the student lead singer of a local indie band. Benjamin falls fast for Noah, bringing him along to meet his friends, inviting him to the disastrous opening night of his latest release. And, just as quickly as he falls for him, Benjamin soon puts the breaks on their burgeoning relationship, telling Noah he’s not sure what he wants from life and, consequently, breaking his heart. What follows is a (short) journey of self-exploration and realisation for Benjamin, as he’s faced with a long life alone if he doesn’t change his flaky ‘millennial’ ways, and fast.
Coming away from the screening, I’m not sure how I feel about Benjamin or Benjamin. Don’t get me wrong, Morgan does a fantastic job. Sarcastic, self-deprecating and dry, he churns out line after line, and Morgan carries the character well. On the surface he’s likeable; however, it’s soon revealed how selfish and self-centred Benjamin really is. He excuses his cold behaviour towards friends and love interests, saying he can’t help it, he’s ‘a child of divorce’. After falling for Noah, he soon feels trapped, despite Noah’s suggestion they take things slowly. Oh no, when Benjamin’s in, he’s in – and then just as quickly, he’s back out again. Only after a chance encounter with his ex-boyfriend (the scathing and brilliant Misfits star Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) where Benjamin is taken down a peg or two, and believing he may have lost Stephen for good, does he wake up to how he treats the people closest to him, finally realising the error of his ways.
Morgan is fantastic as Benjamin, and certainly suits the feature-length leading role. Full of charisma and charm, it’s clear to see why he was cast. Similarly, Fry’s Stephen is an awkward, bumbling character, stumbling over his words and embarrassed by the slightest glance from a woman. He’s grounded and sensible, the shy second player to Benjamin’s self-serving nature, giving this duo a feeling of balance. Equally, casting Raine as Billie is genius; the hard-partying hard-ass, slicked in lipstick and not scared of an angry public argument, she has a hidden soft centre and it’s a shame this isn’t played on more within the film.
As Amstell’s second foray into directing, the film itself is an enjoyable comedy, full of quips and quirky characters. However, he’s also known for basing his comedy sketches and shows around his own personality flaws, making the audience laugh by tearing into himself. While it’s clear Benjamin‘s Benjamin is based on someone (three guesses who), it’s not clear – to me, at least – whether Amstell’s direction is poking fun at his flaws, or if he actually sees them as endearing. Young, carefree, selfish, irritating, he’s every stereotype of the millennial hipster, and we laugh; but are we laughing at Benjamin or with him? I’m not sure.
Smart and snappy, Benjamin is a semi-autobiographical glimpse into the life of a troubled young man. Just don’t expect to come away feeling sorry for the title character – I didn’t (maybe because he really reminds me of the ‘sad boys’ I’ve dated…).