Ben is back. Or, perhaps more appropriately, Lucas Hedges is back (again), as there doesn’t seem to be a holiday season that goes by anymore without the budding star popping up in a slew of prestige projects. In the family/addiction drama Ben is Back, Hedges collaborates with his father director Peter Hedges for the first time as a headliner alongside Julia Roberts. Uneven plotting and overt dramatic choices may detract from this Oscar-magnet, but strong performances render this story a compelling depiction of recovery and the bond between mother and son.
Filmmaker Peter Hedges got his start penning the novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and then adapted it to film, launching his career in Hollywood. He later wrote the movie About a Boy, and made his directorial debut in 2007’s comedy/drama Dan in Real Life. In this film, his son Lucas also made his debut as an actor at age 11, and went on to appear in critically-lauded projects such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Manchester by the Sea, scoring an Oscar nomination for the latter. In this winter’s Ben is Back, the father and son reunite to collaborate in a major way.
On one picturesque Christmas Eve, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) is driving her teenage daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton), as well as her younger son and daughter home, when she is startled to find her eldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges) waiting in the driveway. While Holly’s initial reaction is of joy, her daughter Ivy’s is of acute suspicion, as Ben is supposed to be in rehab again due to struggling with an addiction to painkillers. When Ben and Ivy’s stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance) arrives home, he begrudgingly agrees to allow Ben to stay with the family for a single day.
Affording the son one day over the holidays is an immensely generous offer, as he has a rocky history of stealing, shooting up, and overall jeopardizing the family’s safety in holidays past. Holly is determined not to give up on him, as he displays a genuine commitment to change, though he admits that coming home exposes him to a wide host of triggers that set him off course to begin with. This fear proves to be accurate, as in less than one day Ben is reconnected with old stashes, past associates, and loved ones of those who overdosed after buying from him.
The entire drama takes place in less than a 24-hour period, and the script is incredibly eventful given the limited timespan. It’s an unrealistic chronology of events, but it comes across convincing on-screen since Ben’s return implies a wide host of swift consequences, and especially so given his history within the tightly-knit community. Hedges’ film fires on all cylinders as it gradually divulges Ben’s tumultuous backstory following his mother and father’s split, but the director strays into melodrama as he over-zealously seeks to sell the emotion.
It’s nothing new from Hedges, whose first film behind the camera, Dan in Real Life starring Steve Carell, featured a romance that was ultra-sweet, yet undeniably charming. I did not see his follow-up, Disney’s The Odd Life of Timothy Green, but judging by the reviews, it sounds like he didn’t hesitate from going full-throttle into the sap. His strongest work comes from early in his career, such as the hard-hitting What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, when his focus was relegated to the task of writing. Unfortunately, when it comes to directing, Hedges tends to lack subtlety.
One scene particularly reeks of theatrics, in which Holly and Ben run into the boy’s former doctor who first introduced him to high doses of painkillers, and Holly verbally accosts the old man withering away to dementia, wishing him a slow death. Ben may have had a prolific reputation in the small community, but there are just a few chance encounters too many for one day, and a run-in such as this would have a far stronger rattling on the boy than is portrayed here. Fortunately, the majority of the film’s content is persuasive rather than repellent.
And that is thanks in large part to the solid work of Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts. You might be surprised to hear that these two stars aren’t related, because the mother-son relationship these two display here is remarkably believable. Holly’s desperate need to trust her son beyond reason is challenging to blame, and the sincerity in Ben’s eyes when he professes his desire to mend bridges his impossible to ignore. Kathryn Newton and Courtney B. Vance effectively offset the pair’s optimism with an understandable skepticism due to their intimate knowledge.
The familial dynamics and old scars pave the way to some riveting drama despite the constrained timeline, though the momentum hits the brakes with a prolonged tangent that dominates the third act. Be sure to stick around for the powerful tear-jerking climax, even if the abrupt ending is sure to give you a jolt. Ben is Back may not rank among the best we have to choose from this awards season, but the film boasts some of the best work of Hedges’ career as a director, and aptly shines a light on America’s opioid crisis at a time when it’s most critical.
BEN IS BACK
Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate, Black Bear Pictures, 30West, Color Force.
Directed by Peter Hedges.
Written by Peter Hedges.
Starring Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance and Kathryn Newton.
Released December 7, 2018.