Ben Is Back – Film Review
Director: Peter Hedges
Writer: Peter Hedges
Stars: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance
Don’t be put off by the opening sequence of Peter Hedges’ (About a Boy, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) latest film, Ben is Back. Holly, the All-American “Mom” we meet at the start, (played here by Julia Roberts), grinning broadly as she encourages her three beautiful children at the rehearsal for the Christmas pageant in the local church, seems such a cliché that she is hard to take seriously. The scene seems set for a soft-centred, feel-good movie, however, as we might expect from this director, a darker tale underlies the superficial façade.
And almost immediately the core of this tense drama is revealed. Awaiting the family on the steps of the porch as they arrive back home is the eldest son, Ben (an excellent Lucas Hedges…son of the film’s director), a drug addict who has come from his rehabilitation programme to spend Christmas day with his family. From the reaction of his oldest sister, Ivy, (an angelic-looking Kathryn Newton) this is not a welcome surprise. Ben, we learn, has caused havoc for the family in the past, lying and stealing, and had almost died in the family home the previous Christmas from a drug overdose.
His mother, however, is delighted to see him though she is also realistic about the dangers his visit poses, rushing off to hide the medication in the bathroom and her jewellery box, and agreeing to his visit only if he accepts the strict conditions she sets down. Roberts is hugely impressive in this scene, torn between the love for her son and her need to keep her family safe, and for the rest of the film we see what this actress is capable of. Lucas (Oscar nominated for his role in “Manchester by the Sea”), is far more impressive than Timothée Chalamet’s recent performance in a similar role in “Beautiful Boy”, and is totally believable as the devoted son struggling with his serious addiction.
The second half of the film is almost a two-hander as mother and son are forced to revisit the haunts of Ben’s former life as a junkie in search of their kidnapped dog. This seems a forced and self-conscious device on the part of the director to progress the story and while both actors create a tension and sense of desperation that is palpable, the premise weakens the film overall.
It is worth, however, going to see see the film for its two central performances. Lucas Hedges, only 22 and already with a string of impressive roles among his credits – Boy Erased, Lady Bird, Three Billboards – is obviously destined to become a major star and it is a pleasure to see Julia Roberts show her full potential in a role that must rate among her best. Ben is Back may not be perfect, but it is a remarkable achievement, a totally engaging and moving film.