Ben is Back is the latest film from director Peter Hedges and stars Lucas Hedges as Ben and Julia Roberts as his mother, Holly. Ben is Back is a powerful and intimate look at addiction told over the course of a single day as Ben returns home unexpectedly on Christmas Eve. Ben’s sister and stepfather are not happy about his return, but Holly hopes that Ben is clean so she can enjoy the holiday with her son and the rest of her family.
The subject of addiction is one that has been explored quite a bit over the years in various forms of media. There have been several films, plays, and television series that have shown the harsh realities of what it is like to fight addiction and going through the recovery process. At the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, there were three big films that delved into addiction in different ways. Those films were A Star is Born, Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back. While not all of these films had the same impact, I do believe that Ben is Back is not only one of the best films about addiction but the most emotionally impactful.
Watching a film about addiction isn’t exactly what many would deem enjoyable entertainment. I remember watching Requiem for a Dream for the first time, and when it ended, I felt hopeless and devastated. Addiction is a challenging thing to overcome so watching a film about the topic is rarely an easy watch. However, when done correctly, films, tv shows, and plays about addiction can be used as powerful tools to help those understand someone who has dealt with addiction or is currently dealing with it.
In Ben is Back, Peter Hedges makes the viewer feel and understand what it is like to be a parent of a child who is battling drug addiction. Holly loves Ben and wants nothing more but for him to live a happy life. She is dedicated to helping him overcome his demons and hopes that his dark past is finally behind him. As the film continues, Holly begins to learn that Ben hasn’t overcome his addiction and is lying and hiding things from her and the rest of the family. In 24 hours, Holly’s biggest fear becomes a reality as she watches Ben begin to spiral out of control while learning about his troubled past as well as his deepest and darkest secrets.
What sets Ben is Back apart from so many other films about addiction is that it takes place over a 24-hour period. While watching this story unfold, you begin to feel a real sense of urgency like counting down the minutes to a ticking time bomb that is about to explode. Instead of overpowering the audience with a visual representation of certain things in the film, Hedges leaves it up to the imagination of the audience. This is where the film differs drastically from something like Beautiful Boy. We are not bombarded with flashbacks, but instead, live in the reality that is created and rely on the characters’ authenticity to make the past a reality. There are mentions of Ben’s past and people who hold a grudge against him. Over time, we begin to see how Ben is a compulsive liar and start to question how much of what he says is actually true versus what it is made up.
The performances in Ben is Back really are the crux of the entire film. Julia Roberts delivers what can only be described as a tour-de-force performance. The Oscar-winning actress hasn’t been this magnificent since Closer. Roberts is incredible here playing a loving mother who so desperately wants to believe her son has beaten his addiction. You can see the pain and fear in her eyes as she begins to embarks on this unexpected car trip with her son. I can see Roberts being nominated for this performance because she is that damn good.
Lucas Hedges is having yet another amazing year. His performance in Ben in Back is on par with his amazing performance in Boy Erased. While the films are wildly different, they both require Lucas to showcase his range as an actor. At the beginning of the film, Ben is so likable as he interacts with his stepsister and stepbrother, you really can see there is a good soul there. Lucas does such a remarkable job of playing characters with reserved emotions. He doesn’t break down crying but instead sheds a few tears while delivering his lines with such conviction and emotion. Between his performance in Ben is Back and Boy Erased, I will be completely dumbfounded if he doesn’t get nominated this award season.
While Ben is Back is not what I would call a feel-good movie, I do applaud Peter Hedges for adding in some moments of humor as it makes the film feel a lot more realistic. I understand that while addiction is not a happy topic, by adding in humor does help build upon the authenticity of the story. There are always moments of brightness in the darkness, so I appreciate seeing that being shown in the film.
Ben Is Back is a remarkable return to form for director/writer Peter Hedges. It is personal, realistic, and raw. Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts are incredible together and deliver two of the strongest performances of their careers to date. As a film that stands out from the rest of a sea of films about addiction, you should keep your eye out for Ben is Back and see it when it comes to a theater near you.
Scott ‘Movie Man’ Menzel’s rating for Ben is Back is a 9 out of 10.