Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton, Alexandra Park
Director: Peter Hedges
Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes: 19 year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) unexpectedly returns home to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve morning. Ben’s mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), is relieved and welcoming but wary of her son staying clean. Over a turbulent 24 hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother’s undying love for her son is tested as she does everything in her power to keep him safe. Ben is Back also stars Courtney B. Vance (The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) and Kathryn Newton (Lady Bird).
One of the pitfalls of Awards Season is that many movies are released in a short time span, which means that movies with similar topics will be lumped together instead of being recognized on their own. The issue I see Ben Is Back facing is the similar tone and themes to the more financially successful Beautiful Boy. While I can see why these two movies would be compared since both of them deal with family relationships and drug use, but the two tackle things from two very different angles. While Beautiful Boy focuses much more on the relationship a father and son over time, Ben Is Back shows us a day in the life of a drug addict and the impact it has on his family. Although these changes are distinct, the performances from Roberts and Hedges should be enough to put Ben Is Back on everyone’s radar for the end of the year.
The film follows Ben Burns (Hedges), a recovering drug addict who decides to come home for Christmas. Since this is the first time Ben has been home since entering his recovery program, coming home reintroduces several triggers back into Ben’s life and it is up to his mother Holly (Roberts) to help him avoid the people and places that caused this addiction in the first place. The thing that makes us connect so strongly with the movie is the performance of Roberts. You can feel in every scene just how much she cares about her son’s well being and how much it hurts her to see him struggle with his addiction. One of Roberts’s best scenes comes when she confronts the doctor that first prescribed Ben painkillers when he was 14 years old and pulls no punches when expressing herself for probably the first time since Ben’s addiction began. The whole scene just feels raw and powerful and probably describes how many parents feel about the medical industry if their children have fallen into the cycle of addiction. While Hedges does not have the experience that Roberts has, he very easily holds his own and is able to compliment her in the scenes that they share. Hedges has a blossoming career ahead of him and I look forward to seeing what projects he will work on in the future. Where the film has issues is the plot becomes incredibly perplexing in the second half. What starts off as a powerful movie about a personal struggle with addiction suddenly becomes John Wick without the violence, and I never saw a real reason for the film to go that direction. If the film had focused more on developing the relationship with Ben and the rest of his family and less on the search and rescue aspects that make the film feel clunky, then I think this movie could have been something truly special. Instead, we received an overall good movie that made some strange decisions around its story. We get a glimpse at how Ben’s addiction has impacted the other members of his family, specifically his younger sister Ivy (Newton), but ultimately the film does not go deep enough and neglects the elements that make it great.
Overall, Ben Is Back is probably one of those really good movies that will be left out of the awards circuits when nominations start to open up. That does not mean it is not worth the watch as Roberts gives one of her best performances in recent years and Hedges shows us why he will be an A-list actor one day. If you are emotionally sensitive, this movie will probably move you to the point where it ruins your day, but I believe the film’s point is to show you the raw, unfiltered truth of the Burns’s situation and Ben Is Back does so in a very impactful and moving way.
Overall Score: 7.5/10