The only thing worse than the destructive power of a drug addiction destroying your family is being terribly self aware that your drug addiction is tearing your family to pieces…
After a successful festival run; Ben Is Back hits theatres tomorrow and it is a poignant and emotionally raw story of a family grappling with the pains of addiction and the awareness of the pain that it brings long after the drugs have run out.
19 year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) unexpectedly returns home to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve morning. Ben’s mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), is relieved and welcoming but wary of her son staying clean. Over a turbulent 24 hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother’s undying love for her son is tested as she does everything in her power to keep him safe.
At its core, Ben Is Back is a simple film about the love of a mother for her son, but it really and truly flies thanks to some solid direction, what should be a career making performance for Lucas Hedges and seeing Julia tear into material in a fashion we haven’t seen her due since Erin Brockovich.
Peter Hedges has a solid but hardly exactly flashy track record as a writer/director but here we see a genuinely next level jump as he molds a tragic, yet all too common scenario into something you find yourself unable to look away from. He keeps everything flowing with a high tension kind of flow which draws us in as a viewer. He avoids hokey set pieces and manages to separate his leads from the rest of the ensemble to get us right into the meat of the material. It’s truly about the dynamic between a son, lost in the haze of addiction and more importantly what his addiction to those around him and that of a mother who simply can’t give up on her son. Hedges (who also wrote the script) really directs it all in such a fashion to make sure that it is the actors and the words that are center stage and nothing else.
It’s kind of criminal that Julia Roberts isn’t getting more love for her performance as we quite simply haven’t seen her this engaged and fired up with the material that she is getting to work with since the early 2000’s. She comes on in full powerhouse mode, dripping with the conflict of maternal instinct against the track record of someone who is addicted to drugs. She wants to trust her son, but she knows damn well that she can’t, if only for the sake of the rest of her family. This role allows her to straddle the line between emotionally vulnerable and fragile against her trademark bull head strength and determination which has made her one of the most beloved actresses in the entire world and this is easily some of her best work in the past twenty years.
It feels like Lucas Hedges has been practically everywhere this awards season with his starring role in Boy, Erased and role in Mid 90’s but with all due respect my colleagues and other pundits out there, this is the role where he’s really done the best work. Lucas Hedges takes the role of what could just be another drug addled young man and makes him into a truly conflicted soul. The lovely act of wanting to be home with his family at the holidays turns on him quickly as learns how selfish it truly was and how the actions of his past start coming back to haunt him as more and more people around their small town know that he’s home.
Lucas takes into the mind set of not just an addict but a repentant one as events unfold around him and that’s really where the magic of this film lies. We often see the effects of illicit drug addiction on individuals and on families but it’s so rare to see the addicts outside of the haze of their problems truly get a glimpse of understanding of their previous actions and how it has affected those they love, and it makes for an amazingly heartbreaking watch. Courtney B Vance and Kathryn Newton do strong supporting work as the rest of the family but the weight of the film lies on the shoulders of Roberts and the younger Hedges and they both carry it incredibly well.
Even though it’s set at Christmas, Ben Is Back is hardly a happy movie but it does feel like a pragmatic and maybe even hopeful one for people and families who suffer under the cloud of addiction issues that in spite of the pain, there could be some chance for genuinely cathartic relief for all involved.