FILM REVIEW – BEN IS BACK. With Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar. Written and directed by Peter Hedges. Rated R for language throughout and some drug use. 103 minutes.
If the movie wasn’t set at Christmastime, BEN IS BACK (which is not exactly the feel-good movie of the holiday season) would likely have been released elsewhere on the calendar. Indeed, the tragic elements of this story of a mother and her drug-addicted son will likely leave audiences saddened and depressed. Like the recent and similar “Beautiful Boy” starring Steve Carell, “Ben Is Back” is probably not what people are looking for right now.
Julia Roberts toplines as Holly Burns, who lives in the suburbs north of New York City with her children and her second husband (Courtney B. Vance). Just before Christmas, the family is surprised by the arrival of Ben (Lucas Hedges), the son from her first marriage. Ben has been institutionalized to cope with a drug addiction that left a lot of wreckage in its wake, including the death of a girlfriend. His unexpected arrival – on a supposed furlough for the holiday – generates mixed reactions, but Holly is committed to supporting him.
What follows are a series of incidents which makes us wonder whether Ben is legitimately there and whether he can be trusted. We also get signs of the pressures Holly has been under, as in a bizarre scene where she tells off the physician – now suffering from Alzheimer’s and barely aware of what’s going on around him – who prescribed the drugs that led to Ben’s problems.
Things go from bad to worse when a break-in at their home leads Holly and Ben on a dark journey – first together and then apart – where they deal with various people whose lives crossed with Ben’s. Apparently intended as a tribute to the fierce devotion of a mother to a deeply troubled child, it leaves us wondering if Holly is aware enough to deal with the situation Ben’s unexpected appearance has created. The conclusion leaves us wondering if either of them have learned anything or are even capable of changing their behavior.
The problem is not in the performances. Roberts, now in her early 50s, has played mothers before, and she strikes the right notes as someone who loves her son and is willing to do whatever it takes to help him, even if he doesn’t always seem worthy of the effort. Hedges – son of the film’s writer/director Peter Hedges – has an even more difficult role, as an addict not always able to find the strength to resist when presented with the opportunity to backslide. However true-to-life it may be, it’s a thankless and somewhat unsympathetic role, in contrast to Hedges’s recent role in “Boy Erased.”
The problem is in the script, as filmmaker Hedges doesn’t seem to have asked himself why an audience would want to subject themselves to this. Those dealing with the issues of a drug-addicted family member might connect with the story, although it’s hard to see how they would find it either cathartic or instructive. Those without direct experience may find themselves distanced by its two lead characters making choices that only make things worse.
Given what a downer “Ben is Back” is – even with an attempt for hope at the end – this is the sort of story that might play better on the written page than on the big screen.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.