Review: Ben is Back
Lucas Hedges continues to be a rising star in Hollywood. Having already earned an Academy Award nomination for Manchester by the Sea, the actor is building an impressive filmography at such a young age. He’s already starring in another awards-contender this season with Boy Erased, a film about the dangers of gay conversion therapy. Not content with the accailm he’s receiving there, and not counting his supporting role in the indie Mid90s, he’s starring as Ben in Ben is Back, a film dealing with a son who is addicted to drugs returning to his family’s home over Christmas Eve. The film, also starring Julia Roberts as the boy’s mother, is the most personal of Hedges’ films by the mere fact that Hedges’ father, Peter Hedges, has written and directed this family drama. While there may be an extra, interesting layer of familial bonding throughout, it doesn’t necessarily save it from the narrative trappings we’re so used to seeing in films like this.
Ben makes a surprise appearance within the first few minutes of Ben is Back, thrilling his mother, Holly, but worrying his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance). His history of lying and manipulating his family is made apparent right away, they’re all fully aware of the danger Ben brings with his return. The film plays well with these intimate family moments. Roberts, in particular, excels as a mom whose maternal instincts are fighting with her real-world knowledge that Ben’s drug addiction has, and will, come back to once again tear the family apart.
The family agrees, eventually, that Ben should stay over for Christmas, but as soon as they try to go through the motions of a family celebrating the holidays, the sooner they realize Ben’s problems haven’t gone away as well as he’s claimed. It’s here where Ben is Back is emotionally powerful; a family trying to keep itself afloat over a holiday weekend, with Ben’s addiction acting as a ticking clock. It’s only when it veers away from the grounded reality of the drama at hand that the film becomes less and less impactful.
Ben has a drug problem which extends into drug dealing, and his reappearance in his hometown catches the attention of the gang he was affiliated with before he went to rehab. Credibility stretches as the family dog is kidnapped and Ben and his mother go out on a late night mission to rescue the pup. They retrace Ben’s past, much to the anger and heartbreak of Holly. Events build and build to an eventual final act that’s straight out of a substandard drug thriller, which is not at all suited for the caliber of film that came before.
Ben is Back’s strength is in its performances. Hedges and Roberts on screen together make for some riveting moments from beginning to end. Hedges makes Ben an enigma, fitting with the unknown dangerous nature of drug addiction. As horrific events from the past start to reveal themselves, Hedges manifests the horror of his mistakes appropriately. Until the final frame, you do feel for both Ben and Holly. The long road of keeping your loved ones safe takes its toll, and the guilt of not having to burden anyone with your problems has its pain, as well. Despite its ridiculous turns, Ben is Back manages to be a compelling enough family drama, that reminds us of just how far family can go for one another.