Editor's note: "Through a Screen Darkly," a monthly commentary by CT Movies critic Jeffrey Overstreet,explores films old and new, as well as relevant themes and trends in cinema. The column continues the journey begun in Overstreet's book of the same name.

Bullies lurk in the corridors of Christian schools, too.

I remember them well. While my ability on the basketball court earned me some measure of respect from the bruisers in my junior high school, I still had four marks against me: I was an A-student, was awkward in social circles, had no spending money to achieve any kind of "cool" factor, and wasn't a partygoer. So when easier targets for the bullies' fists weren't around, I became fair game.

That's why big-screen scenes of bullying and cruelty are hard for me to endure. It's not that I have flashbacks; in fact, the insensitive ruffians became my friends when they finally matured. It's just that I feel for the one who suffers. And worse, I can usually guess where the movie is headed. I've had my fill of crowd-pleasing pictures in which the wounded finds some clever way to wreak revenge on the bad guys.

It's rare that we find thoughtful examinations of how young people suffer behind the backs of neglectful adults. 2004's Mean Creek and 2006's This is England are two brilliant exceptions to the rule. Both are honest, rewarding depictions of what can happen when young people have no good help in responding to mistreatment by their peers.

But this year, two more remarkable exceptions appeared—Choking Man and Ben X, both distributed by Film Movement, both about persecuted, alienated young men. There are considerable differences between the films, but they share some surprising things in common.

A tormented immigrant

Choking Man comes from Steve Barron, who made a name for himself directing music videos (Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," a-Ha's "Take on Me"). It follows Jorge, a young immigrant from Ecuador, played by Octavio Gómez Berríos. Jorge works with the multicultural staff of Rick's Diner in Jamaica, Queens, New York.

Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp

Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp

As he washes dishes for Rick (Mandy Patinkin), the Greek-American owner, Jorge stares at the wall where a simple guide to the Heimlich Maneuver is posted. Jorge's illiterate, so he can't read instructions. But the simple diagram speaks to him on several levels. He sees a man who cannot breathe, and another man holding him in a stifling grip.

Meanwhile, Jorge's coworker Jerry (Aaron Paul) torments him for his lack of social graces and language skills. "You know," Jerry jeers, "I haven't heard you say more than twelve different words since you've been here. What's up with you? Do you know what illiterate means? It means you're ill."

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The pretty, pixie-voiced Amy (Eugenia Yuan, the film's bright spot), the newly hired Chinese waitress who has a soft spot for Jorge, defends and encourages him. "Don't let it worry you," she tells him. "Like water on duck." But that only throws fuel on Jerry's fire. Soon he's dividing his attention between mocking Jorge and charming Amy.

Feeling hopeless, inadequate, and ashamed, Jorge tries to find a gift for Amy that will express his affections. But he faces further humiliation at every turn. One shopkeeper tries to take advantage of his feeble grasp of English. And at home, things aren't much better. Jorge's domineering roommate messes with his mind, urging him toward violence.

Eugenia Yuan as Amy

Eugenia Yuan as Amy

Barron has an eye for visual metaphors. In a moment of abstract expression, a glob of tomato soup at the bottom of a bowl disintegrates, and we know a young man's heart is breaking. But there are just too many big ideas packed into this little movie, and many of them seem lifted from other, better films—like Taxi Driver, Punch-drunk Love, Fight Club, and A Beautiful Mind. Worse, the director's endeavor to inspire feelings of claustrophobia and suffocation go beyond the effective depiction of Jorge's experience. Viewers may suffer asphyxiation themselves, and abandon the film before it's over.

That would be a shame, because it's a story told with the best intentions, a remarkable work of compassionate filmmaking.

An autistic outcast

By contrast, the Ben in Ben X is more appealing and sympathetic.

The actor, newcomer Greg Timmermans, looks like he could be a brother to Tobey Maguire's geeky Peter Parker, or Jake Gyllenhaal's morose Donnie Darko. And he captures Ben's vulnerability and social insecurity, making us believe that video games provide a sense of self-assurance and capability in the midst of a perilous environment.

Greg Timmermans as Ben, with his gaming avatar

Greg Timmermans as Ben, with his gaming avatar

Ben's an outcast at school because he's autistic. He cannot connect with his classmates in a way they understand, so they attack him because he's different. He's an easy target for the cruel hooligans that haunt the high school corridors.

Ben X (in Dutch with English subtitles), which Belgian director Nic Balthazar adapted from his own stage play, is most insightful in considering the appeal of video games for young people who feel no control over their lives; who feel threatened at every turn; who needs tools, armor, weapons, and allies to survive.

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"In games you can be whoever and whatever you like," says Ben. "Here you can only be one person, the jerk you see in the mirror." He spends his spare time in an online, multi-player role-playing game called ArchLord. "I've now reached level 80," he declares. "If you don't know what that means, it's just … high. It means you're strong. Respected in the world."

The game-world is wild, but simple and easy to navigate. On his white horse, Ben charges across lush fields, passes between breathtaking mountains, through Stonehenge (or some kind of "henge," anyway), and into violent battles with Orc-like monsters who attack him with cudgels and battleaxes. "You're as strong as your weapons and your tools," he declares.

Scarlite (Laura Verlinden) with Ben

Scarlite (Laura Verlinden) with Ben

But in the real world, Ben's autism creates an unbridgeable distance between him and his peers. Worse, he's struggling to cope in the uncomfortable space between his divorced parents. And although he has a powerful memory, and his father thinks he's "ten times smarter" than other kids, his doctors and schoolteachers treat him as either a science lesson or a charity case. Advice from his elders is rarely any better than "Don't take it to heart," or "Keep your cool."

It's easy to see how Ben's desperate escapes into the world of ArchLord are inclining him toward responding to violence with violence in the real world.

Wrestling with Christ

The differences between Choking Man and Ben X make their similarities all the more interesting. Both Ben and Jorge must overcome their shyness and reach out to the beautiful young women they adore. Both must reckon with characters who exist only in their imaginations. And both must wrestle with the implications of a crucified Christ.

Director Steve Barron with Berrios

Director Steve Barron with Berrios

Choking Man concludes as a tale of redemption. Jorge finds a moment of clarity during a church service. It's as though the sermon is directed at him: "Maybe you are struggling now with fear or morbid shyness. … Maybe you are in a period of spiritual darkness. Overwhelmed with guilt, sensing that God is far away." The priest assures the congregation that "God says, 'Listen … I know the plans I have for you. You will ultimately experience courage and peace.'" And he sends Jorge out thinking about what a "demonstration of holiness" might look like.

But Ben X imagines the influence of the gospel upon Ben in a very different manner.

Along the path to school one day, he pauses to look worriedly at a figure of Christ on the cross. And later that day, one of his teachers lectures on the universality of feeling abandoned by God. "With all the wars, the poverty and the injustice … where is God?" The teacher points out that even Jesus felt abandoned by God in the ninth hour of his crucifixion. "He is so humiliated, dispirited, disheartened, that Jesus himself doubts God. He lets go. In fact, Jesus commits suicide."

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Soon after that lecture, Ben's classmates gang up on him in a particularly grueling and humiliating attack. They film it with cell phones for easy distribution online. Suddenly, Ben's computer is no longer the safe refuge it once was.

But Ben's been thinking about Jesus. Surely his refusal to speak or condemn his accusers before the school principal seems intended to remind us of Christ before Pilate. But what will it mean to follow Christ's example further?

Too much suffering?

Ben X has everything it needs to become a cult hit among teens. Like The Matrix, it follows its hero from a mundane existence to fantastic adventures in alternative realities. But the film suffers on several levels.

Ben's tormentors gang up on him

Ben's tormentors gang up on him

In his earnest desire to have us feel Ben's pain, Balthazar bullies the audience too much. We're forced to watch Ben suffer prolonged scenes of physical and emotional abuse, until it threatens to become The Passion of the Teen Outcast.

Moreover, the storyteller gives little thought to the nature of Ben's tormentors, and what might be done to prevent such cruelty.

And there's a certain tone of smugness and self-satisfaction in the end that feels more like revenge than redemption. Viewers will debate whether or not Ben's decision is an act of genius or just an elaborate pageant of public retaliation. Whatever the case, it's an unforgettable ending, and one that resembles Christ's sacrifice in a rather unorthodox and misguided fashion.

I can relate to Ben in that I too found relief from my childhood troubles by retreating into fantasy. But it wasn't the fantasy of video games, where I might have sought the illusion of control and the gratification of violent engagement. It was the redeeming experience of great storytelling. Losing myself in The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, I sympathized with suffering heroes, and I found real hope in the idea of "another will at work," a grace that could save us from our enemies and ourselves.

By contrast, Ben ends up embracing a crooked sort of cross, one that is more about retaliation than redemption. If encounters with Christ throw fuel on our fire to see the bad guys get what they've got coming, well, keep in mind the confession of William Munny in Unforgiven: "We've all got it coming, kid."