Ben is Back, 2018.
Written and Directed by Peter Hedges.
Starring Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, Mia Fowler, Jakari Fraser, David Zaldivar, Alexandra Park, Michael Esper, Tim Guinee, and Courtney B. Vance.
Follows the charming yet troubled Ben Burns (Hedges), who returns home to his unsuspecting family one fateful Christmas Eve. Ben’s wary mother Holly Burns (Roberts) welcomes her beloved son’s return, but soon learns he is still very much in harm’s way. During the 24 hours that may change their lives forever, Holly must do everything in her power to avoid the family’s downfall.
Ben is Back is a tale of two halves, with the first being a gripping and tense look into the pressures of fighting recovery and not relapsing back into drug addiction, while the other functions as an unwieldy thriller involving a search for the stolen family dog throughout the Christmas Eve night. Lucky for writer/director Peter Hedges, Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges (yes, the director and star are related) inject as much emotion into the proceedings as possible, working overtime on eliciting a lifelike mother/son dynamic centered on both unconditional love and deep concern that he will give in to the craving that still likely exists, despite making a genuine effort to stay clean with the help of rehab and sponsors.
Coming home out of the blue on Christmas Eve morning, Ben feels that he is capable of spending the special day with his entire family, and his sponsor apparently agrees. In familiar Christmas movie fashion, the events take place over the course of the day and one long night, where the former shows us just how much of a struggle it is for addicts to stay on the wagon. Appearing relaxed and calmly collected, Ben accompanies his younger but more well-behaved, intelligent, and ambitious sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton, now marking the third time the duo have collaborated together) to the attic in search for decorations, when in a sudden instant Ben becomes stricken with anxiety and visibly triggered by something; he tells her that he used to store drugs up there and to search for any real quick to be disposed of immediately. Lucas Hedges excels with these scarily vulnerable moments, even when the movie seems to be going out of its way to thrust him into tempting situations. I wish that was the only thing wrong with this film.
For whatever reason, Peter Hedges shifts Ben is Back from a study of how each family member is dealing with the return (Ivy is skeptical that he has control over himself, his stepfather played by Courtney B. Vance is unsure if it’s a wise decision to let Lucas stay the night, and we see how playful and caring Ben is with his much younger siblings) and the ways that addicts succumb to relapse. At one point, Ben deems it necessary to visit a focus group to kill the itch to start using again. With love and affection, his mother Holly (Julia Roberts) shadows his every movement, whether it’s going to the bathroom or trying on new clothes in the shopping mall, and yes, to the rehab meeting itself.
There’s also a family dog adored by all, and some drug dealers not too happy that Lucas is back in town (apparently, he still owes them in a big way). While the family is out and about, a kidnapping occurs spiraling the night into a restless journey to find out who has it out most for Lucas. Not only does this make for a fairly generic thriller that stops caring about the already established tone and point of the film, Ben constantly tells Holly that he has done horrible things, so much so that she would abandon him if she knew the half of it, but it’s never gone into further detail. The film is too busy showing them drive from house to house or finding them separated (in one of the sillier scenes that really makes you question what the hell movie you’re watching anymore, Ivy talks to her mother via cell phone telling everyone out of the blue that she’s a technological genius and can use various devices to locate Ben).
Outside of the excellent work from Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, the only other interesting dynamic at play is the compulsive lying from Ben. He openly tells his mother never to trust him and that everything an addict says is a lie, naturally causing us to question just about every statement he makes, but even knowing that the script still finds some very sly ways to slip in some fibs that are difficult to catch. Also, the fact that the second half of the movie does go all in on the mother/son relationship does grant these one-on-one moments an added intensity. It’s just a shame but the narrative driving their interactions is so clumsy, uninspired, and boring.
Ben is Back has a rather abrupt ending leaving some things to ponder as if for the climax the filmmakers wanted to end things on another personal note. Both stars do some terrific things with the material in the finale, but the movie has lost so much goodwill by then that it’s hard to muster up a care to give. Again, it’s unfortunate, as the idea of taking the Christmas Eve film template and applying it to an addict trying to stay clean is a refreshing spin on the genre’s formula, but along the way, the film gets just as hijacked as the dog by less interesting plot points.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com