A second film, like a second album, is fraught with problems, but it also offers a rich seam of jokes, especially around the double edged sword that early success brings. “Ideally I’d have just made that film and died”, young filmmaker Benjamin tells his publicist, Billie about his first movie. “Is that not a good answer…?” he trails off, aware that once again speaking his truth, as we are encouraged to do now, has just got him into more trouble. “Shall we just say you’re a perfectionist?” she suggests, briskly.
Coming seven years after his successful debut, his new film is called No Self, but Benjamin hasn’t a hope in hell of escaping who he is. It’s strongly autobiographical, about a young man’s inability to love, though his love life mirrors his attitude to his new movie – which is that paradoxical mix of extreme insecurity and refusal to commit, combined with a willingness to bare his soul on a huge screen at the London Film Festival in return for hoped-for love of a different kind.
Of course, the self is merely a construct we create to protect ourselves from falling in love. I know that because Mark Kermode says so when reviewing No Self, the release of which coincides with Benjamin unexpectedly falling in love.
Colin Morgan plays Benjamin to perfection, exquisite embarrassment running through his veins and affecting nearly every interaction. And Jessica Raine is a joy as his rude publicist Billie, in her edgily pretty wardrobe and wavy bob, batting out endless put downs for other people’s wholly imagined faux pas. It’s when Billie invites Benjamin to a launch party for a chair (yes you read that right) that he spies Noah, a talented French musician studying at the Guildhall by day and singing in a band by night.
The quietly self-contained Noah (Phénix Brossard) looks exactly like a britpop singer from 20 years ago, though admittedly my knowledge of music has plummeted since then so it’s possible guitar band haircuts really haven’t moved on in the intervening two decades. Neither, it seems, have chat up lines, with Benjamin declaring “You’re French too, that’s exciting isn’t it! I’m a big fan of Les Mis.”
Out of Benjamin’s own safe space, every social interaction is littered with pitfalls. His attempts at banter often land like boulders wrapped in lead, thrown into blancmange. He’s enthusiastic but you can almost see him wondering: how do other people do it, gliding through life so smoothly?
Those anxieties are an artistic and comic gold mine for writer-director Amstell. This is a layered portrait that recognises Benjamin’s bafflement at the milieu he’s working in while still throwing himself on the crumbs of approval it throws him, without retreating into caricature when the story moves full on into the media world (tempting though it must be, after a working life surrounded by people like that). They’re weird, but they’re real.
We’re never laughing at Benjamin but many will recognise his behaviours. A brief scene that has him scuttling round a convenience store buying ice-cream to binge on is filmed in that fast, jerky style where you know the character doesn’t even want to acknowledge to himself what he’s doing.
This is an enjoyable wallow in bafflement and awkwardness, with a good dose of sadness thrown in. It’s often also hysterically funny. That it works so well (I only occasionally wanted shake Benjamin, when the repetition became too much) is testament to Morgan’s performance, and Amstell’s skill at teasing out the comedy to be found in emotion, while reining in that found in the arts world.
The characters the filmmaker encounters aren’t stereotypes but are easy to recognise from this odd media bubble that just seems to grow and grow over the decades, even as we mock it. “I really like that it’s not something you’d want to sit on” muses a random party goer at that chair launch party. The old saying about people willing to go to the opening of an envelope begins to seem less of a joke.
Amstell knows well that media mix of cynicism and full-on adoration, and how people slightly outside that are never sure which way the hive mind will fall. Harry and Billie adore a particularly time-wasting piece of performance art that they all sit through (it’s called Womb, which should tell you enough), with Benjamin knowing the emperor has no clothes and assuming everyone else will feel the same.
Harry (Jack Rowan), Benjamin’s co-star in No Self, is a perfect luvvie in the making, a small mind tackling only slightly bigger ideas, claiming to see meaning in the meaningless works of other fake creatives. Billie and Tessa (Anna Chancellor), Benjamin’s producer, thrive in that world, because they never stop to think about it. Benjamin thinks way too much, usually about himself.
It can all feel very incestuous, even in a huge capital city. Billie is dating Harry (sort of, though he doesn’t like labels), while occasionally sleeping with Benjamin’s best friend and collaborator on a musical about depression, Stephen (the excellent Joel Fry, once again a scene-stealer). A chance meeting with Benjamin’s caustic ex-boyfriend Paul (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), still sore after their split, also shows how within Benjamin’s world everyone is propping up the status quo despite what they claim. (The flamboyant Paul exists in another small world – fashion.)
It takes Noah, a genuine outsider, to take Benjamin out of his claustrophobic existence where he’s stopped being able to rate his own work and offer him a way out that will probably also reinvigorate his artistic life.
At a nifty 85 minutes, Amstell’s semi-autobiographical comedy drama is like one of those intense relationships where everything happens very quickly. Then when it suddenly ends, you look back in amazement at the emotional highs and lows, the jokes, the warmth and the coldness it managed to cover in such a short time.
Luckily in Benjamin it’s all happening to someone else, though it could easily have been happening to me. Or you, probably. Excruciating awkwardness crosses all identities.
Benjamin is released in the UK on DVD on 12 August.
Watch the Benjamin trailer: