Peter Hedges' nuanced drama about a family grappling with drug addiction starts strong but wobbles off the wagon.
Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges as mother and son in Ben is Back. Photo credit: Mark Shafer.
When we first see Ben (Lucas Hedges), it’s a snowy day and he’s peering in the windows of a semi-rural family home. It’s not immediately clear what he’s up to, but the smart money would be on him looking for a way in, swiftly followed by him taking out any handy valuables. Yet when his mother Holly (Julia Roberts) sees him as she drives up her driveway, he’s standing outside away from the house, innocently waiting for his family to come home.
This is the question that drives the first half of writer-director Peter (father of Lucas) Hedges’ film: Is former (and possibly still junkie Ben back to visit his family to celebrate Christmas like he says, or is he there to take advantage of them one more time? It’s obvious his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) isn’t happy to see him, even before she jumps on the phone to summon her stepfather Neal (Courtney B Vance). The battle lines are swiftly drawn: Neal and Ivy don’t trust him and want him sent back to rehab, while Holly wants him to stay – even as she’s hiding all the drugs in the house and making him take a drug test.
So is Ben really back as part of an attempt to get his life on track, or does he just want to get high? The first (and best) half of the film paints a grim picture of a hollowed-out community left in the wake of addiction, while it steadfastly refuses to settle Ben’s situation. We’re constantly presented with scenes that could be read either way. Is Ben nervous because being back reminds him of the bad behaviour he now wants to avoid, or because he’s hiding something from his family? When Ben gets twitchy during a visit to the mall after he sees a drug buddy, is it because he’s been reminded of his old life, or did he just score and is hiding it from Holly?
Peter Hedges’ brand is family dramas, both as an adapting screenwriter (About a Boy, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and as a writer-director (Pieces of April, Dan in Real Life, The Odd Life of Timothy Green), so it’s hardly surprising the family dynamic here is nuanced and down-to-earth. But the balancing act between Ben and Holly wouldn’t work without strong performances from both Roberts and Hedges. Roberts makes Holly’s desperate yearning palpable without burying her wariness, while Hedges casts just enough shade on Ben’s love for his family to leave it open; maybe he’s holding back because it’s an act, maybe he’s holding back over his guilt from all the times he’s hurt them before. If it starts to feel a little repetitive, that’s the point. Trust can only be earned back one small step at a time.
This constant dance around his addiction – his family all love him but hate his disease, and they can never be quite sure which one is in control – is compelling, if sometimes gruelling, watching. Then around the halfway mark the family return home from Christmas celebrations to find their home broken into and the family dog missing. It turns out he’s been kidnapped, which leads to a nightmarish night-time tour of Ben’s old drugs haunts looking for the crime kingpin who’s taken the dog as a way to get Ben back working for him. Guess it really is hard to find reliable staff when you’re a major drug dealer.
A generous reading of this bizarre development (which is played completely straight) would be that putting Ben and his mother in an increasingly extreme situation – it’s positioned as a dark reflection of their daytime travels – makes for a compelling way to get them to lower their guards and connect on a real level. But while both actors give strong performances throughout, the increasingly over-the-top nature of their plight as they travel through a terrifying drug hell takes Ben is Back in a direction more suited to a direct-to-DVD thriller. The characters deserved better.
Ben is Back
Director: Peter Hedges
USA, 2018, 1hr 43min
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