A thoughtful look at abusive drug use and it's rippling effects on others.
Following the footsteps left earlier by Beautiful Boy, Peter Hedges’ Ben is Back is a captivating family drama with a telescopic approach to the repercussions of drug addiction and its splintering effects on a family and community. Honest, intimate and empathetic, both Hedges and his son, Lucas Hedges, portray the uneasiness of returning home after rehab with a surprising amount of complexity. Unfortunately, the film sacrifices its subtlety for a middling thriller plot halfway through its runtime which hampers its pacing and delicate setup.
Holly Burns-Beebly (Julia Roberts) serves as the audience surrogate who is conflicted over her son, Ben (Lucas Hedges) and his sudden return on Christmas Eve. We follow her from the comfort of the local communal church to the snowy driveway where Ben’s presence startles both Holly and her daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton). The gentle and warm introduction to the family suddenly turns unsettling as we, alongside Holly, wait anxiously for Ben to relapse. From the house, the shopping mall and even the church, haunting reminders of the scale of Ben’s dark past are sprinkled sparingly throughout the film.
Lucas Hedges presents many facets to Ben’s character. He is able to balance off-kilter humour alongside the more sensitive and dramatic moments audiences have come to expect from the young actor following Manchester by the Sea and Boy Erased. Courtney B. Vance also delivers an exceptional performance in his role as Neal Beeby, the reasonably sceptical stepfather. However, the actor who shines the most is Julia Roberts. Her performance as Holly is by far a career highlight. She provides a strong portfolio of facial acting and dynamic body language, switching between lovingly maternal to stone-cold effortlessly. Through her performance in this film, she captures the internal struggle to love yet despise aspects of someone who is capable of both manipulative and destructive behaviour.
One of the chief highlights of this film is where it provides some snippets into the morally dubious aspects of the town is set in. Within the underbelly of a cosy suburban neighbourhood we are made aware of some terrifying facts surrounding the main characters. Such an establishment of a setting’s historical past is often reserved for television which was quite surprising to see here. Not only does it show the adverse impact of drug addiction and drug trafficking on a personal scale, but also how thoughtless actions can have a detrimental effect to a larger community of people. However, the second half of the film does betray the majority of the primary themes, choosing a poorly conceived rescue plot which harshly changes the tone of film. It’s also a shame that the resolution of this plot is emotionally unsatisfying.
Overall, Ben is Back is for the most part, a well-conceived examination of the struggle to adjust to life following drug overdose both personally and for family members. Peter Hedges not only provides an insightful look at the epidemic of abusive drug use, but shows how anyone, regardless of their circumstances can become entrenched into dangerous territory from even the most unlikely of situations.
Ben is Back, directed by Peter Hedges, is distributed in the UK by STX International, certificate 15.