There are two movies inside Ben is Back: one is a compellingly observed look at how the trauma of addiction afflicts not only the addict, but the family, à la Beautiful Boy at the turn of the year; the other is a cumbersome payback thriller on a narcotic stereotypes high. As the latter continually takes precedent over the former, the old adage of “less is more” becomes readily apropos.
Unlike the ruthlessly recurring narrative of the Chalamet and Carell vehicle, Peter Hedges’ film focuses on one day; Christmas Eve. As Holly (Julia Roberts) returns home from church with daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and her two siblings, she finds Ben (Lucas Hedges) at the door. On the apparent advice of his sponsor, he’s left rehab early to see his family. Both Ivy and her husband (Courtney B. Vance) are weary, but Holly is bowled over by maternal love – Ben is back, and he’s here to stay (at least, for the night).
Anxiety permeates through the first half; although the demand for another insight into middle-class addiction is definitely faltering, the family dynamic at play here is authentic enough to feel tangible. It’s also immediately emotional; Holly and Ben’s first embrace, punctuated by Dickon Hinchliffe’s full-toned composition (though absent later on), manages to evoke brimming eyes.
Of course, that wouldn’t be possible without the sensational talent anchoring the picture; Hedges, son of Hedges, has a winning screen presence that puts you on his side despite the grudges around him. That can make comprehension of Ivy’s initial staunch resentment seem crass – until his past unravels, bringing with it some sinister and sickening touches. But it’s Roberts who emerges from the drama as the real triumph. The bona fide chemistry with her co-star lends its hand to some darkly humorous moments (she encourages Ben to complete a drug test with: “Come on, pee pee time”), but also some harrowing conflict. The finest moment of the film comes when Ben jokes about her not checking his shoes for drugs before he goes into a locked dressing room. The camera interchanges between them in the aftermath of the gag – most powerfully on Holly’s gentle transition from brief smile to full-on panic. It’s a reminder of what a remarkable talent Roberts is.
Director Hedges also penned the screenplay, which is where most of the issues lie. The domestic scenes are generally effective, although a line from Vance – “If he were black he’d be in jail” – strikes out of momentum with the dialogue (despite the fairness of the sentiment). There’s also a strangely placed scene with Holly pulling up a doctor (she sees as) responsible for Ben’s starting addiction to painkillers, declaring that she hopes he dies “a horrible death”.
But it’s when the story switches to drug dealers trying to get back at Ben that the grip loosens, turning into another-run-of-the-mill yarn that has its own sleazy kingpin and snapshots of the hellhole addiction leads to on the streets. The camera work is a mixed bag, with DP Stuart Dryburgh painting a self-contained, snowy landscape that brings about feelings of dread and peace – although gonzo flourishes, such as splices of handheld work and lower-definition visuals, disturb the film’s quite watchable traction.
Roberts is absolutely extraordinary in this engaging, but meandering mother/son drama.
Directed by: Peter Hedges
Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance