BUOYED BY THE AFFECTING PERFORMANCES FROM JULIA ROBERTS AND LUCAS HEDGES, BEN IS BACK MAKES FOR A COMPELLING (THOUGH UNEVEN) EXPLORATION OF ADDICTION.
The new project by writer/director Peter Hedges, Ben is Back is the latest film or TV show to deal with drug addiction and recovery in recent months. Whereas Felix Van Groeningen’s movie Beautiful Boy tackles the topic in the context of a memoir and Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House explores the subject through the lens of supernatural horror, Hedge’s film examines the realities of how addiction impacts people (and those around them) through a mix of familial drama and, to a lesser degree, the crime genre. The end results are mixed, but otherwise commendable in their own right. Buoyed by the affecting performances from Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back makes for a compelling (though uneven) exploration of addiction.
As Ben is Back starts out, Holly Burns (Roberts) and her family – including Ivy (Kathryn Newton), her teenaged daughter from her first marriage, and Holly’s two young children with her second husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) – are preparing for their church’s Christmas Eve celebration that night. Holly is then shocked when she and the others return home to find Ben (Lucas Hedges), her 19-year old son, who has spent the last 77 days remaining drug-free in rehab. Ben quickly explains that he’s just there for Christmas Day (with the permission of his sponsor) and will resume his treatment right after.
When both Ivy and Neal make it clear that neither of them thinks Ben’s visit is a good idea, he agrees to head back to rehab early before Holly strikes a deal with him and the others: Ben can stay for the holiday so long as he remains under her strict supervision. At first, things seem to be working out, even as Ben’s presence opens up old emotional wounds in not only Holly, but also Ben himself and other people who were affected by his past drug use. However, before he knows it, Ben’s past catches up to him, leaving it to Holly to take drastic action, in the hope that it’s not too late to save her son.
The first half of Ben is Back bears a resemblance to something like Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April (or director Jonathan Damme and writer Jenny Lumet’s own drama dealing with drug addiction recovery, Rachel Getting Married), in that it focuses on family dysfunction and the maelstrom of emotions that Ben stirs up in Holly and the rest of her clan, upon his return. Hedges’ script work is strongest in this segment of the film, as it digs into the complicated and frequently conflicting feelings that Holly experiences, as well as Ben’s own struggle to be truly honest about himself and the effects that his actions continue to have on his loved ones (especially his mother). Roberts and Lucas Hedges’ performances are likewise the most moving in this part of the film, as are those from Newton and Vance. Indeed, much of what the cast doesn’t explicitly say, but rather implies through their actions or their references to the past, ends up being as important as what their characters talk about directly.
While Ben is Back doesn’t fly off the rails during its second half, it does change gears, and not necessarily for the better. This is the section of the film that shifts into being more of a grounded crime drama, in the sense that it focuses on Ben and Holly as they deal with various shady people from Ben’s past. Problem is, along the way, the movie fails to develop the more important story threads from its first half (like the conflict within the Burns family or a subplot involving a death in Ben’s past) in a truly satisfying way. It seems that Peter Hedges’ intent here was to give the film’s overarching narrative a firmer structure by ramping up the stakes in its latter half, but the execution feels contrived and calculated, compared to the way the drama unfolds up to that point. Beautiful Boy also had a difficult time crafting a three-act story that shines a light on the realities of drug addiction and why staying clean is so hard for those in recovery, and it’s a challenge that Ben is Back doesn’t fully overcome either.
Hedges, as a director, nevertheless does a good job of drawing out captivating performances from his ensemble cast and keeps Ben is Back moving along at a steady pace (and even wraps everything up well below the two-hour mark). The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) further serves to anchor the film’s story and character drama, making heavy use of handheld camerawork and intimate closeups in the process. Ben is Back‘s visuals are pretty unvarnished overall, but that allows it to paint a fittingly bleak portrait of its wintery small-town backdrop and, in turn, the troubled world that allowed Ben’s drug use to thrive in the first place. Less successful, however, are the film’s efforts to generate suspense with the editing and sequencing during its latter half; much like his work as a writer, Hedges the director is (understandably) better at handling the drama aspect, when it comes to drama-thriller storytelling.
For the large part, Ben is Back is concerned more with telling a meaningful personal story than making any kind of big statement with its up close and personal look at drug addiction. At the same time, the film does nod to the larger issues that it touches upon here, like the modern opioid epidemic in the U.S. and the social privilege that Ben is afforded as a young white male, but wouldn’t have otherwise. Still, it’s might be for the best that Ben is Back doesn’t go further than that (lest it wind up biting off more than it can chew), and is instead content to let its fictional narrative speak for itself, in that regard.
It may not be as strong as this year’s other awards season contenders on the whole, but Ben is Back is an otherwise perfectly respectable drama on its own terms – one that also makes for a worthwhile addition to the recent slate of films and TV shows that take a hard look at the tumultuous process of drug addiction rehabilitation and recovery. Roberts and Lucas Hedges (who, yes, is also Peter Hedges’ son) are equally good in their roles here and fans of either/both actors’ previous work may want to give this one a look in theaters, for that reason alone. With so many “big” movies coming out in December, something like Ben is Backcould be a nice alternative for those seeking something a bit more intimate in scale.
Ben is Back begins playing in select U.S. theaters on Friday, December 7. It is 103 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout and some drug use.
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