BEN IS BACK, US, 2018. Starring Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B.Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Michael Esper. Directed by Peter Hedges. 103 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, drug use and coarse language).
Ben is Back takes place over 24 hours, Christmas Eve into Christmas morning, the background family involved in the Nativity play at the local church, rehearsals and performance, but this being just an emotional background to a much more emotional experience.
Ben, played effectively by Lucas Hedges (continuing a successful career from Manchester by the Sea, Three Billboards, Boy Erased and here directed by his writer-director father, Peter Hedges), suddenly returns to see his family for Christmas. His mother, Holly, is delighted, sweetness and light in the Julia Roberts style, huge grins and laughter. However, it is the opposite with his younger sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton) who is very wary of his arrival. There are two younger children from Holly’s second marriage to a businessman, Neal (Courtney B.Vance).
What is the trouble?
Ben has been in drug rehabilitation, an addict from his early teens, involved in dealing and the death of a close friend. Ben states that he has the support of his sponsor to visit his family for Christmas, assures them that he is being off any drugs for 77 days, that he wants to be with them. Neal, who has been paying the fees for his stepson’s rehabilitation, is very firm in dealing with him. Ivy is reluctant but the younger children are delighted with his presence. Holly, realising the seriousness of the situation but delighted to have her son back, starts to take more serious stances (and, by the end of the film, is desperately loving but seems to have taken strong influence and language from her performance and is Erin Brockovich!).
The action takes place over only 24 hours. There are some very happy scenes, especially in the young children’s rehearsals for a Nativity play in the local church in the family going to see the performance. Ben goes shopping with his mother for gifts for the children.
However, the family are tense – which means that we, the audience, are increasingly tense as to whether Ben will take more drugs (but there is an engaging and moving sequence where he goes to a group meeting and talks frankly about himself, Holly being very proud of him). And there is always the problem of the truth, whether he has his sponsor’s approval for the visit on not, what are his contacts in the town.
In fact, the plot becomes more desperate as it continues – the family returning home from the Nativity play to find their beloved pet dog missing. This leads to a dramatic search, Holly becoming more desperate as they look for the dog, Ben making contacts because he knows who took the dog – and risking the consequences.
The film is effective in its drama, it involving its audience in the seriousness of the problems. Those who have seen the film which is similar in theme, Beautiful Boy, with Steve Carrell and Timothee Chalamet, will be on familiar ground. Interestingly, these are two films which are geared towards middle American families, that statistics reminds us that more Americans die from opioid overdoses then car crashes, that drugs are not problems of the ghettos or particular ethnic groups, but the addicts and challenges in their ordinary suburbs.
And, as with Beautiful Boy, the point is made that, despite the good intentions of parents, their earnestness in trying to help their children, the seeming helplessness, that ultimately, it depends on the antics decision as to whether they can be helped or not. Beautiful cowboy was based on memoirs by father and son. Ben is Back leaves the audience with uncertainties.
Roadshow. Released January 31st
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.