Addiction has an awkward place at the family table during holiday time.
Ben is Back
Director: Peter Hedges (Dan in Real Life)
Cast: Julia Roberts (Secret in Their Eyes), Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased)
Runtime: 1 hr 43 min
By: John DeSando
In the many treatments of troubled young men this year (Boy Erased, Beautiful Boy, Burning, to name ones I’m aware of), Ben is Back is the most affecting. Ben (Lucas Hedges) has bolted from his rehab clinic to spend time with his loving family. Although the film devolves into a quasi-thriller, the first half or so depicts with alarming clarity what it means to have a heroin addict in the house, even for a day. It’s hell.
His Mom, Holly (Julia Roberts), is the one most acutely aware about hiding anything that her son might use to get off the wagon. Holly is one of the strong women characters for this year, reminding that Roberts has the chops to pull of a heavily dramatic role, as she did in Erin Brockovich and August: Osage County. Hedges, like Roberts, gives a performance of his much shorter lifetime.
The household stress is shifted when Ben’s pet dog is stolen for ransom to lure him back into the dealer game. Director Peter Hedges (father of Lucas) has mom and son searching for the dog but also for a connection that can erase Ben’s addiction. Finding the dog is the action to make the film come alive and to show the audience the scary world of drug dealers.
By moving the action to the search outside the home, Hedges has lost the demanding drama of family adjustment including the teen sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), the two younger siblings, and the tough-love Dad, Neal (Courtney B. Vance). The world of dealers we have seen before, but such a slice of upper-middle class turmoil has been too infrequently portrayed. Even Beautiful Boy didn’t involve the audience as much as Ben is Back does.
By adding the dealer turn of the screw, Hedges has revealed the convoluted and pain-giving world of addiction, now planted firmly in homelife, where even the streets must compete for tragedy and despair.
Although Ben is Back has formulaic elements and an unfortunate clustering with other young-men lost films this year, it stands alone in revealing the horror addiction unleashes at home.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com