Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges tackle the nightmare of addiction in the sobering Ben Is Back
This review is part of Reel Nine’s coverage of the 41st Denver Film Festival. You can find reviews of other films at the festival here.
The addiction drama is a film subgenre that’s been in vogue for quite time, allowing the industry to leverage the talent of some of its most talented actors to provide harrowing warnings of the dangers of drug addiction. As time has gone on, these sorts of films have felt less and less as if they’re coming from places of good intention and more like rather shameless showcases for their actors designed to garner awards season attention. The rise of the opioid crisis, however, has given these films a new sense of urgency and relevance, giving filmmakers a new sense of purpose in their efforts to portray the consequences of drug abuse. The high prevalence of opiate abuse has reclassified addicts on film; they are no longer just outsiders or artists that feel detached from the reality of the world of the audience watching them suffer. Now they could be in every neighborhood. They could be next door, your teacher, or even those closest to you.
Few films are as attuned to the pervasive nature of drug abuse as Ben Is Back, writer-director Peter Hedges’s (About a Boy) empathetic but rarely sentimental look at the effects of addiction on a seemingly picture-perfect suburban family. The indomitable Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich) stars as Holly Burns, a dedicated mother looking forward to spending Christmas with her children and husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance, American Crime Story). Their idyllic holiday is thrown into disarray with the unexpected arrival of Ben (Hedges’s son Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased), Holly’s first child and a heroin addict whose scheming and recent near-fatal overdose has earned him yet another stint in rehab. Adamant that his sponsor has approved his return home, Ben begs Holly to let him stick around for the festivities. Despite her own reservations and warnings from Neal and her oldest daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Holly’s deep love for her son gets the better of her and she allows him to stay, unknowingly setting off 24 hours of chaos that will force her to confront her son’s demons firsthand.
At face value, this film may seem dangerously hokey: Roberts, her immense talent aside, has a track record that suggests this is the sort of film plagued by the sort of sentimentality that gives it an air of dishonesty. Hedges’s script doesn’t let us off so easily, however. It’s defined by writing that’s acutely aware of the complexity of the pain surrounding families struggling with loving an addict, capturing the equal parts compassion and distrust that comes with the territory. His script has the markings of a studied, confident screenwriter, especially in moments where he proves that he recognizes the depth of the societal problems that surround addiction. An early scene keys you into his keen awareness: Neal, tired of Ben’s antics, reminds Holly that if Ben if were black like him, he’d already be in jail. It’s a moment that plays no role in the larger context of the script, but strikes a heavy chord and sticks with you. It shows Hedges is more than up to the task of portraying a social issue as multifaceted as drug abuse.
It helps that his lead actor is Roberts, whose powerful performance sheds any notion of the possibility that she would phone it in with some soccer mom stereotype. She turns what could be a one-note role in another film into her best in years, crafting an unashamedly devoted mother who is just as fiery as she is loving. It feels deeply genuine because she’s unafraid to hold back Holly’s deep-seated guilt and rage over Ben’s addiction, forgoing any ideas that her identity as a mother has to make her tender at all times. This is a woman with real pain and real concern, inches from bursting into a fit of anger at any given moment, but always defined by her dedication to her son. It’s perhaps best captured in an early scene, one of the strongest in Roberts’s recent filmography, where Holly comes across the doctor who got Ben hooked on opiates after a snowboarding accident. Addled by memory loss, the doctor can’t remember who Ben is, but that doesn’t deter Holly from ripping into him, bluntly telling him that she prays he suffers a lonely, suffering death for what he did to her son. It’s a moment that captures the righteous anger of thousands upon thousands of horrified parents across the nation, and it hits hard because Roberts isn’t the type to pull her punches.
The younger Hedges is at his best here, too, not letting working with his dad stop him from going all in on portraying the ugliness instilled in those suffering under the weight of addiction. While his quickly burgeoning career has given rise to some light online mockery over the similarity of his roles as tortured young men, there is truly is no one in the business right now than Hedges when it comes to capturing the shame of the mistakes of our youth. Ben, despite all the nightmares he’s bestowed upon his family with his decisions, is still forged into a sympathetic character precisely because Hedges makes him human, a charming and caring boy who nevertheless made terrible decisions with repercussions that haunt him at every waking moment. He desperately wants to get better, but to be better is to live aware of every bad thing he did as an addict. The breadth of Hedges’ performance drives home the mental torture of being stuck between these two mindsets, forcing you to remember that sobering up is never, ever easy. And it reminds us that no matter frustrated we can grow with the addicts in our lives, it doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of our help.
Despite all the good Ben Is Back does in portraying the consequences of addiction for both addicts and their families, it unfortunately falls apart a bit in its back half as the film transitions from an effective drama to more of a crime thriller. It’s a plot shift that lets Roberts and Hedges ramp up the intensity of their solid performances, but often abstracts and even contradicts the messages of the film’s first half. Gone are the thoughtful musings of the film’s more grounded opening, in is the sort of shock-till-you-drop depictions of drug culture that have lessened the impact of other addiction focused films. The change ultimately makes the story feel like two different films entirely, one being an honest portrayal of the trauma of addiction and the other being a fine but deeply messy dive into the criminal underworld. If the behind-the-camera Hedges had shown the restraint he so deftly utilized in the film’s earlier scenes, he would have ended up with a more focused, more affecting work.
Still, Ben Is Back is much better than it has any right to be. In a subgenre filled with tropes and bad intentions, Hedges’s assured direction and solid writing elevate this into a worthy, if sometimes problematic, portrayal of a widespread problem whose damnation is often mired in misguided politics and uninformed online outrage. It’s an honest attempt to portray addiction, both in the work behind the camera and in front of it, and honesty is exactly what we owe anyone who has dealt with drug abuse, either personally or through someone else in their lives. Even if the film’s message doesn’t always stick, you can’t damn it for trying.