Directed by: Peter Hedges
Premise: A heroin addict (Lucas Hedges) returns from rehab to his mother’s home on Christmas Eve.
What Works: Ben Is Back is an addiction story but one that is focused on the repercussions of drug use and the struggle of sobriety. The movie is about a young man who returns home for a surprise visit around the holidays and how he faces the people who he has left behind. Much of the movie is about Ben’s relationship with his mother and how their struggle has impacted the rest of the household. Ben is played by Lucas Hedges, an actor who has specialized in playing troubled young men, and Hedges’ performance is Ben Is Back is probably the pinnacle of this phase in his career. Hedges understands the tension in an addict; Ben has a burning desire that he can just barely control and is aware that indulging this desire will hurt those around him and ultimately lead to his self-destruction but he wants it nonetheless. The tension between desire and responsibility is evident throughout Hedges’ performance. He’s paired with Julia Roberts as Ben’s mother. Roberts has been doing some underappreciated career-high work in recent years in movies like Secret in Their Eyes and The Normal Heart and Roberts’ performance in Ben Is Back is just as fierce and complicated. Without belaboring the point, it is evident that the mother enables her son by making excuses for him while also trying to hold Ben to account and keep him on the path to recovery. Those dueling motherly instincts to nurture and to protect are quite vivid in Roberts’ performance. In the second half of Ben Is Back, the story takes a turn and mother and son are on a search that takes them through Ben’s addiction and the people and places that were a part of his heroin use. The journey makes Roberts’ character realize the depths to which addiction took her son but also makes Ben face up to his failings and the filmmakers manage to do this in a way that doesn’t feel overly forced. The story pushes its characters to their physical and emotional limit and the final stretch of the movie is quietly intense.
What Doesn’t: Two supporting actors are underutilized. Courtney B. Vance plays the new husband of Julia Roberts’ character. He has a tense relationship with Ben which complicates the marriage but the misgivings of Vance’s character are well founded. However, he remains on the periphery of the action; Ben and his step-father don’t come into much direct conflict. Also underutilized is Kathryn Newton as Ben’s younger sister. The siblings have a complicated relationship and their mother clearly favors Ben and ignores his sister. We don’t get much sense of how she feels about this or how the mother-daughter relationship is impacted by Ben’s problems.
DVD extras: Commentary track, image gallery, trailers.
Bottom Line: Ben Is Back is an above average addiction drama. It’s a smart movie about the impacts of drug use on the user but also on everyone in the user’s proximity and it does this without becoming hokey or moralistic. This is a complex and brutally honest film with terrific performances by Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts.
Episode: #750 (May 19, 2019)