Coming off lauded performances in their last respective projects, Julia Roberts (TV’s Homecoming) and Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased) continue to ground their work with committed performances in Ben Is Back, a heart-wrenching yet standard drama detailing the demons of addiction.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges (star Lucas’s own father) Ben Is Back strives for honesty in its depiction of drug addiction, not just for the user but their family who are, at times, more affected by this crippling disease. Though as much as it aims for this effect, Hedges can’t help but layer the story with a sense of hope, and as admirable as Roberts’ character is in her depiction of unmoved support, it means the film never entirely commits to the warts-and-all mentality it should’ve; last year’s Beautiful Boy presented a less melodramatic, more organic take on the subject matter.
The film opens with the Burns family – Holly (Roberts), her new husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance), their children (Jakari Fraser and Mia Fowler), and Holly’s daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) – returning from church, taken aback when they see Ben (Hedges) waiting outside their home. Whilst Holly is overjoyed that he has come to visit – it’s stated that he has been in rehab and granted a visitor pass in the lead-up to Christmas – Ivy and Neal are immediately concerned.
Holly is insistent that this visit will do the family a world of good, though it’s highlighted that only she can believe so much when it comes to Ben’s word that he is clean as she frantically hides all the alcohol and prescription meds in the household within moments of his visit. As Ben does his best to stay on the narrow, it isn’t long before his hometown past catches up with him, and it’s in the film’s second half that the repercussions of his drug-addled actions open up a haunting gateway for Holly to uncover.
Whilst Ben Is Back as an overall product suffers from a sense of identity crisis – the aforementioned second half almost descends into thriller-like territory – Roberts manages to ground the material the best she can, keeping the film from overtly surrendering to its melodramatic inclinations. Similarly, the script manages to surround the second-half plot crisis of the family dog being abducted with visits to Ben’s former dealers and customers, which results in one of the more unsettling and heartbreaking realisation moments for Holly as a parent who couldn’t protect her son from more than just one predatory substance.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker (writer/director Hedges has such acclaimed work as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, About A Boy, Pieces of April and Dan In Real Life to his name) and cast, Ben Is Back very easily could’ve given way to the dramatics of the story. Thankfully though, Roberts and Hedges are more than committed to the importance of the material, delivering moving performances that appear organically motivated, even if the story guiding them isn’t always naturally grounding.
About Ben Is Back
Your addict son mysteriously returns home unannounced for Christmas… would you let him stay? Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges star in #BenIsBack.
Ben Is Back (M) is screening in Australian theatres from 31st January 2019.