Ben is Back, 2018.
Directed by Peter Hedges.
Starring Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton, Courtney B. Vance, Michael Esper, David Zaldivar and Rachel Bay Jones.
A mother welcomes her drug addict son home early from rehab when he drops by on Christmas Eve, until the family dog disappears…
Throughout the early part of Ben is Back, Julia Roberts is playing the part of a welcoming parent to a tee. She holds her eyes wide open like an anime character, as if trying to convey as much energy and intrigue as possible. You can almost see the matchsticks holding her eyes open, as it takes every fibre of her being to maintain her peppy facade. Inside, she’s in turmoil, and that turmoil is entirely a result of her son.
Ben (Lucas Hedges) is, as the title suggests, back in the lives of his family members. He has spent the last 70-odd days getting clean at a rehab clinic after his addiction to a cocktail of different drugs led to him doing a number of unspecified terrible things, but has now left to spend Christmas with his family. His mother, Holly, is wary enough to empty the bathroom cabinet of pills and hide the jewellery from her dressing table, but welcoming enough to ignore the advice of her daughter (Kathryn Newton) and husband (Courtney B. Vance) in allowing Ben to stay, as long as he doesn’t leave her sight at any time.
This film arrives in cinemas just a few months after the similarly themed Beautiful Boy, and both movies actually premiered within a day of each other at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The key difference between the two is that writer-director Peter Hedges uses his protagonist’s addiction as a catalyst for the story, rather than it serving as the main focus of the movie. Indeed, Ben is Back becomes something of a road trip thriller, when the disappearance of the family dog in suspicious circumstances sparks a journey through Ben’s chequered past. As they drive through the neighbourhood, he almost lazily recites his crimes, stating: “I used there… I robbed someone there”.
Hedges’s central performance is one of expertly portrayed enigma. One of the first things the audiences learns about addicts is that they are inherently deceitful, so it’s almost impossible to divine Ben’s motives. Is he genuinely keen to return to the family unit, or is he just trying to engineer an opportunity to sneak off for a fix? Even a trip to a meeting for former addicts culminates in Holly discovering a packet of something illicit in his jeans. Hedges never overplays his hand and remains impossible to read.
This leaves the road clear for Roberts’s showier turn. She’s a woman who admits that “trying too hard” is “what I do” and is devoted to giving her son every possible chance to prove himself. Her aforementioned forced energy is heart-breaking, but serves as a telling portrait of a mother’s unique faith in her offspring, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that her faith is misplaced. With this in mind, it hits even harder in the moments when that faith cracks, including a scene in which she drags Ben to a graveyard and demands he choose where he wants to be buried after he inevitably dies of an overdose.
Much of the film is a two-hander, relying on the chemistry between Hedges and Roberts, but the story separates them for a third act that generates considerable tension as we move towards a finale that never seems likely to have a pleasant conclusion. Arguably, it all becomes a little too frenetic and messy – some generic, evil dealers turn up to growl a bit – in the third act, but the two central performances have built up so much goodwill by then that the emotional finale still hits hard.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.