Ben Is Back
Ben Is Back is the second powerful family drama from 2018 to take on the opioid crisis. As in Beautiful Boy, the focus is on an upper middle class family and a young white man of college age. The difference is that Beautiful Boy was adapted from a pair of memoirs by a father and son and has the messy structure of real life, while Ben Is Back is fictional, written and directed by Peter Hedges, the writer of the film About a Boy and the director of Pieces of April, among other films.
Hedges elects to impose a strict structure on his story, setting it across about 24 hours from Christmas Eve into Christmas Day, beginning when the title character unexpectedly shows up at his mother’s house while he’s supposed to be in a residential rehab program.
The tension rises immediately, as it quickly becomes clear how fearful Ben’s family is that he’ll relapse, or steal the family’s valuables, or worse, and the anxiety remains high throughout the film. Ben Is Back captures the volatile mix of love, desperation and helplessness that must roil so many families struggling with addiction.
The heightened emotions are supported by a terrific cast that includes Julia Roberts as Holly, Ben’s mother, and the director’s son, Lucas Hedges, in the title role. Courtney B. Vance is Neal, Holly’s second husband and the father of her younger two children. Particularly good is Kathryn Newton as Ivy, Ben’s high school age sister and the most distrust member of his family.
Peter Hedges’ storytelling is practiced, and he devises a Christmas Eve crisis that takes Ben and Holly on a tour of Ben’s misdeeds in their small town. In just a few hours, they encounter some of the other people who have had a part in Ben’s addiction, or whose lives have been damaged by his past behavior. As the picture of Ben’s misdeeds becomes clear, the movie detours briefly into thriller territory to manufacture a dramatic (if pharmacologically dubious) finale.
The supporting players Ben and Holly encounter are vivid mini portraits of addiction’s wreckage, plus one stock drug dealer who serves up a plot point or two. On balance, the intelligence of the dialog and structure overcomes the contrivance, and the emotional arc is strong. The perfect opioid crisis movie has yet to be made, but both Ben Is Back and Beautiful Boy are worthy and heartbreaking offerings that may inspire even more accomplished films to come.
Grade: B. Rated R. Now playing at the Carolina Cinemark.
(Photos: Mark Schafer/Courtesy of LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)