James C. Clay // Film Critic
BEN IS BACK
BEN IS BACK is a much more layered addiction drama than what is promised. So many times we get straightforward after school special on the dangers of drug use, but times have progressed since the D.A.R.E. ages of the ‘90s; instead of blaming the children, videogames and music, we have been treating addiction as a serious disease.
Halfway through BEN IS BACK there’s a purposeful tonal switch into a searing crime-drama that could have been murky, but under the watchful eye of its director (and two calibrated performances from Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges), the film pulls through into a satisfying conclusion.
Director Peter Hedges, father of Lucas Hedges and director of DAN IN REAL LIFE, brings tension to a family on the brink. It tells (and shows) the audience how a quick emotional trigger can affect an addict and can send a family spiraling.
The story focuses on Ben (Lucas Hedges), who mysteriously comes home Christmas Eve, vaping on the doorstep of his estranged family. He claims to have his addiction under control. He feels good and is looking for redemption after ruining the past two family Christmases. But the veneer of Ben’s presence starts to lose its shine as his mother, Holly (Roberts), welcomes her son with open arms. She may have a touch of codependency mixed with a heaping dose of tough love. Ben’s stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), is stern, but fair, and isn’t going to sacrifice the safety of his children with Holly for a suspicious reunion.
Roberts brings a veracity to this role as a mother looking to trust her son against her better judgments. Lucas Hedges shows a nimble performance as he struggles through moodswings that are subtle at first glance, yet the script provides layers to how menacing the disease has been to Ben’s mental health. He can go from confident, to joyous, to shame and to anger all in an afternoon.
Peter Hedges doesn’t strictly focus on the dynamic within the family. An unexpected mystery arises, which causes Holly and Ben to do some detective work down the rabbit hole of Ben’s drug-addled past. The two discover that this disease spreads and sometimes it can come back in its worst form the moment you let your guard down. Peter Hedges, who also wrote the script, never loses sight of uncovering truths about a disease that many want to sweep under the rug.
BEN IS BACK is at its best when the mystery is underplayed and Roberts and Hedges are left on their own to uncover the vast layers of emotion between a mother and her son. There are no easy answers when it comes to addiction, but here, there is still room left for love to open the door to recovery. This is the kind of story that shows you some relationships are worth being saved.
BEN IS BACK opens in select theaters on Friday (12/21).