“Ben is Back” is a gripping story of parental devotion pushed to its limits by a relentless, implacable antagonist: addiction.
Filled with impactful performances from a supremely talented cast, it’s a powerful take on what’s become in today’s world an all-too-familiar story.
The film’s unique approach creates an opportunity for a different sort of immediacy to the drama. As a result, audiences receive a potentially more harrowing film-watching experience.
What’s it about?
“Ben is Back” unfolds on a snow-covered Christmas Eve in an Upstate New York town. Suburban mom Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) gets a surprise amid her last-minute holiday preparations when her eldest son, Ben (Lucas Hedges, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri“), shows up on her doorstep.
Ben’s sudden appearance creates mixed feelings for everyone in the Burns family, including Holly. He’s come home before, but the young man’s ongoing battle with opioid addiction turned those previous homecomings into traumatic experiences.
Ben claims he’s doing well in recovery. Holly wants to believe, but she issues an ultimatum. Ben gets one day home during which he can never leave her sight.
That one day becomes a harrowing journey as Ben’s past associations learn of his return and come to collect on old debts. He sets out to make things right, and Holly resolves to not leave his side.
From there, she gets a closer glimpse than ever before into what was Ben’s grim reality.
Parental love and difficult truths
As both writer and director, Hedges delivers here first and foremost a story about parental love. Specifically, he examines a basic truth: that a parent’s unwillingness to give up on their child can be both a strength and a weakness.
In order to really delve into that duality, for a good portion of the film he keeps his narrative lens focused tightly on Holly and Ben. The boy’s arrival creates tension that the film slowly builds as the scenery changes from bright, cheery holiday scenes familiar to American families, then pays that tension off when the scenery changes to something darker and seedier.
In the course of the journey he sets his characters on, Hedges also uncovers a secondary truth. Those darker, seedier scenes in fact co-exist almost side-by-side with what audiences may regard as affluent suburban bliss.
Roberts, Hedges terrific
Hedges benefits from the strong chemistry between his leads.
Roberts, of course, is no stranger to demanding dramatic roles. If anyone needed a reminder of just how good she can be in the right project with the right script, “Ben is Back” should serve well.
Hers is the viewpoint role – we experience the most frightening aspects of the world Ben seeks to escape through her eyes, the eyes of a mother who wants more than anything to help her son but isn’t sure how or even if she can.
Right beside her is Lucas Hedges, one of today’s brightest film stars and, it should be noted, Peter Hedges’s son. The younger Hedges adds to his already remarkable resume with his work here — as with his turns in “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards,” he brings to life earnestness, emotional conflict and remorse in a way that’s utterly believable and relatable.
“Ben is Back” also features memorable supporting turns from Courtney B. Vance (“American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson“) and Kathryn Newton (“Lady Bird”).
“Ben is Back” is definitely worth a watch in theaters for audiences looking for something heavier than the holiday season’s usual offerings.
For its arresting performances and strong script, it’s a memorable and worthy entry into a genre of films that sadly continues to grow as stories of opioid addiction and the devastation it causes to families become more prevalent.
Ben is Back
Starring Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, and Michael Esper. Directed by Peter Hedges.
Running time: 103 minutes
Rated R for language throughout and some drug use.