Peter Hedges’ (“Pieces of April”) new film has a genius teaser trailer showing Julia Roberts emotionally embracing her son played by Lucas Hedges. The rest of the film, and its many surprise narrative turns, you will have to see for yourself.
There were a string of films that debuted about families dealing with addiction. “Ben is Back” is another one of those films but plays out very differently from “Beautiful Boy,” which is pure drama. It might turn out to be a family affair if Lucas Hedges gets nominated for “Ben is Back,” directed by his father, over his equally powerful performance in “Boy Erased.”
When Holly Burns (Roberts) returns home from the Christmas play rehearsal, the last thing she expected on the doorstep was her eldest son Ben (Hedges). After years of drug addiction, Ben has been in rehab working with a sponsor and currently has 77 days clean. His arrival is a mixed blessing, because it’s at home where the relapses seem to occur. Holly agrees that Ben can stay, but only for one day, and only if he remains in his mother’s sight the entire time. When word about Ben’s return gets out and the family comes home from the Christmas play to find their house vandalized, Ben realizes his mere presence puts everyone in danger.
I think it’s better if the reader doesn’t have a sense of why “Ben is Back” switches from drama to unconventional thriller, so I will leave that out of my review. There are some emotional moments before the switch, such as Holly forcing Ben to pee in a cup for a drug test before allowing him to stay. The scene that confirms this film as something different begins when Ben, in fear of relapse, must immediately attend a meeting, joined by his mom. Sorry, he says, knowing her ears are hearing some personal aspects about his life for the first time. Every person is complex and complicated, and so are their addictions. Through a radical turn of events, Ben and his Mom end up driving around town on Christmas Eve reliving some of the worst mistakes of his past. Like his work on “Pieces of April,” Peter Hedges makes this film relatable, even if you can’t identify with the story’s more extreme aspects.
Roberts gives one of the top three performances of her career in “Ben is Back.” She balances the loving mother and rule-enforcer brilliantly. Many might compare the description of her role with that of Steve Carell’s in “Beautiful Boy,” however aside from the drug addicted son, these films and characters couldn’t be further apart. Roberts and Hedges trade off driving the film and sharing perspectives, so the audience can get the whole picture. By the second act of this film, we have grown to care for this family. The amount of suspense it builds combined with the humanity is emotionally overwhelming. The subject matter and what’s at stake make “Ben is Back” hard to watch, especially for parents. “Ben is Back” is a raw film that focuses on performances and the message, yet surprises you throughout in the most unexpected ways.
Final Thought: Oscar worthy performances from Roberts and Hedges only add to the devastating power of “Ben is Back.”