Looking at a film like Ben Is Back, it can seem like the writing is on the wall. This is a drama coming out in the late fall, featuring a young, Oscar-nominated actor, and a veteran Oscar-winning actress. It is an original screenplay dealing with the addiction troubles of one family member, as he returns to his home for the holidays. Films like these can get by thanks to an audience accepting the inherent sadness that comes with the territory of a movie such as this, no matter the level of melodrama. And yet, Ben Is Back works for reasons that make sense; it affected me. It’s the sort of film that used to have been given credit just for existing as a standard studio release; so now, lacking IP or a true story behind it, I just have to champion Ben Is Back (a small studio release) for being emotionally affecting.
Lucas Hedges stars as Ben, a young man who has taken a couple of days off from rehab to visit his family during Christmas. This arrival is met with mixed results. Ben’s drug using and drug dealing days has left bad marks back at home, so while his mother Holly (Julia Roberts) is thrilled to see her son, Ben’s sister Ivy (Kathryn), and his stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance), are more than just skeptical about this situation. Even with the best intentions, however, Ben finds that trouble is not taking the holidays off. What starts as a story of a family reunion eventually becomes a thrilling journey to set things right.
With a background as a playwright, and a few films under his belt, director Peter Hedges (Pieces of April, Dan in Real Life) has chosen to make another movie about the nature of family. Ben Is Back feels like a move in a different direction, however, as it leans on drama and some thrills over the punchiness of quip-filled family dinners masking lighthearted drama. Hedges’ The Odd Life of Timothy Green dealt with two parents who were unable to conceive, but that was also a Disney drama infused with magic. Ben Is Back takes a different approach that doesn’t start as bleak, but certainly takes itself seriously.
Beyond its genre classification, though, you get a film that starts in a very grounded situation, allowing us to see different perspectives of a family that has had to deal with some severe issues. Unlike Beautiful Boy, I found more success in the limited amount of time we spend with this group of people, which helped create a sense of immediacy I could respond to on a higher level. While creating deeper characters out of the rest of Ben’s family, aside from his mother, wasn’t necessary, the film made me understand what that living situation was, and what kind of lives everyone appeared to have during the moment in time we see.
As the film moved past Ben’s arrival and away from the drama created by him being back, the screenplay eventually revealed more of what it was after. As a plot develops in the form of an important member of the family that needs to be rescued, the film becomes a mother/son-driven narrative. Ben and Holly are given many scenes together, and even as they are separated, all we can do is care about how they can both make things work out. Whether or not Holly gets to see her son stay away from temptation is critical. Seeing if Ben can find the salvation he desires within his family is vital. Discovering how it plays out means going through a journey that’s perhaps overdone, but also a display of very passionate work.
I can understandably see how Ben Is Back can take some criticism for plot turns that feel like contrivances. That tends to be the case with films staged around a long day. At the same time, it’s a matter of both accepting that this is a movie and whether or not the filmmaking on display can push a film past its perceived obstacles thanks to a level of quality. This is where Ben Is Back shines, as everyone truly delivers.
Hedges is terrific here. He certainly impressed many with his Oscar-nominated performance in Manchester By the Sea, and he’s been stacking up some solid roles on his resume for a young actor since (think Lady Bird and Three Billboards). Ben Is Back shows me why he’s looked at as one of the stronger actors of his generation. There’s a real naturalness to his work in this film. He hits the big moments in a way a young person would handle them, and the script knows how to subvert certain aspects of a story involving an addict in the right sorts of ways. All of this allows Hedges to be pushed in the right directions to deliver powerful work.
At the same time, Roberts is right there to support him. The film walks a line with her character when it comes to showing the desperate nature of a mother who will never stop caring about her son and the kind of broadness fit for Oscar-ready clips to put out there. However, it’s a forceful performance that finds the emotional levels needed to be authentic. Having Roberts as a mother whose emotions are all right there makes plenty of sense to me given the nature of the story being told, and I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the way the drama unfolded, leading to a heavy climax I truly felt for.
Using the wintery imagery of suburban New York, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh helps keep the film presentable, without being overly showy. The music by Dickon Hinchliffe know what moments to dig into, without being overbearing. Ben Is Back is an actor’s showcase, but the filmmaking that comes with it is strong enough to allow a movie such as this to work on the right levels and not undercutting the goodwill created by what’s established with the characters.
Ben Is Back is a solid drama that does well by its good intentions. It becomes more plot-driven than expected, given the setup, but I was pleased with how involving it all was. Hedges and Roberts are at the center here, regardless, and they never let go of control. They both help this story dig into its thematic areas concerning redemption and family, which is just as true to the holiday spirit as lighter emotions, such as joy. With that in mind, Ben Is Back is no less a good film for the holidays than others, as long as you know what you’re getting into.