Ben Is Back
A fine-tuned performance from Julia Roberts lifts this familiar addiction drama.
January 31, 2019
For the second time in just a few months, one of Lady Bird's boyfriends has turned to illicit substances. For the second time in his four-movie filmmaking career, Peter Hedges explores a black sheep's holiday homecoming. Both of these statements require some unpacking, but they demonstrate just how well-worn much of Ben Is Back feels. As Timothée Chalamet did in Beautiful Boy, fellow Lady Bird co-star Lucas Hedges portrays a young man grappling with drug dependence and disappointing the devoted parent who just wants him to get clean. And as the elder Hedges did in 2003's Pieces of April, the writer-director charts the drama of an awkward family reunion.
There's another layer of familiarity to Ben Is Back, too: Peter and Lucas Hedges are father and son. As well as the movie's similarities to other accounts of addiction and reconvening relatives, perhaps that's why it largely seems like the product of folks firmly in their comfort zones. The plot rides the usual emotional rollercoaster, ending exactly where everyone expects. With the film's tone, Peter Hedges tries to find a balance between sensitive and tense, and between heart-wrenching and sombre as well. Visually, the picture makes the most of grey hues and anguished close-ups, each adding to the recognisable mood. And although Lucas Hedges' performance is reliably raw and multifaceted, the impressive young actor never quite reaches the heights that he demonstrated in Manchester by the Sea and Boy Erased.
Still, Ben Is Back has a spark to it, with Julia Roberts proving the picture's powerhouse package. Wearing the weight of a mother's unconditional love in every patient step and searching gaze, she plays suburban mum-of-four Holly Burns. Arriving home from Christmas Eve church choir practice with her excited pre-teen kids (Jakari Fraser and Mia Fowler), she suddenly shares their enthusiasm when she spies Ben (Lucas Hedges) standing on their snowy doorstep. Only high-schooler Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is wary — thanks to his complicated history, her older brother is supposed to be in rehab, as paid for by Holly's second husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance). But Ben promises that he's happy, healthy and has his habit in check, which Holly chooses to believe, imploring the rest of the family to follow suit.
With reminders of his past mistakes littered around both his home and his hometown, Ben's pledge to his mother and Holly's faith in her son each prove hard to maintain. While there's little that's surprising about Ben Is Back's story (even when it endeavours to chart its own path into near-thriller territory), Roberts remains a source of continual astonishment. A much rarer presence on cinema screens of late than in her 90s heyday, she steps into her second doting mum part in as many movies, after 2017's Wonder. And yet, nothing about her performance paints by the numbers. Indeed, this is really her film, and it tells her character's tale. Holly has experienced a life tougher than her well-appointed two-storey house makes plain, although not as rough as the places that Ben's return takes her to — and Roberts makes that difficult clash evident without needing to explain it in words.
Also present in Roberts' fine-tuned portrayal is a narrative that everyone knows, yet is scarcely given such nuance and attention. Ben Is Back tells of parental sacrifice, as evident in everyday choices rather than grand or tragic gestures. It's a story about the cost of caring — the toll a mother willingly pays when always offering a shoulder to cry on, lending a helping hand, trying to see the best in her children and endeavouring to do what's right for one kid when she has three others at home. Hedges' script attempts to thread this idea into a broader statement on suburban addiction, and, specifically, the destructive influence of prescription drugs. It's a noble quest, and one of the movie's more ambitious moves. Ultimately, however, Ben Is Back works best when it focuses on the quietly expressive Roberts, and lets her commanding work turn an intimate snapshot into a bigger story.
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