Rock bottom, recovery, relapse, rinse and repeat. This is the formula for your typical sympathetic tale about the crippling cycle of addiction. Add to that a promising, affluential white youth for palatability and you essentially have a good majority of films about addiction that have come out in the past 20 years, including this year’s Beautiful Boy. While Ben is Back shows that it’s just too hard to kick that habit, it does provide a unique rush that you don’t usually get from this type of film.
Ben is Back proves to be as much a statement as it is a warning about the sobering reality of living with a recovering addict and the never-ending battle that follows. This isn’t the first film about addiction to come out this year, but it certainly is the most refreshing. Peter Hedges writes and directs this tale of recovery and redemption, but subverts it in a very unexpected way that helps the film stand out while turning it into an uneven mess. If you know anything about Hedges’ past films, it’s that he likes to turn everything into a family affair, so it only makes sense that this film takes place during one of the heaviest family holidays of the year: Christmas. Much like past films that take place during Christmas, but really have nothing to do with the holiday, this is not a feel-good affair. It is more like a combination of other Christmas-set films like Tangerine and Die Hard.
I admittedly love these kinds of films because they present a dose of reality to counteract the overdosing amounts of sugar-coated holiday cheer that doesn’t exist outside of the month of December. Hedges perfectly uses the holiday backdrop as a way to draw back the veneer curtain of Christmas and reveal how addiction affects a family year round. Just because Ben is Back takes a somber approach to the holiday season, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t without its gifts. Hedges kindly spares us from most of the well-trodden material by skipping past Ben’s (Lucas Hedges) origin story, which, like a superhero origin story, is full of predictable tragedy. Instead, we are transported to the future/present, after several rounds of failed rehab and a family hardened by continuous disappointment and betrayal.
Don’t let my description fool you because this film is all about hope, second chances, and making amends. The film does focus on how much one family member’s substance abuse problem has changed their entire family dynamic, but it’s also wonderfully juxtaposed by how a mother’s unconditional (tough) love can be the only thing to save her son. Lucas Hedges, son of Peter Hedges, gives a career-high performance as Ben, adding depth to a character-type that is usually dimensionless. Lucas is able to effortlessly channel his character’s feelings through nuanced expressions. We can see his shame, his pain, his constant battle against his craving, but most of all, we see how strong the character’s resolve is, even when it falters. Same can be said for Julia Roberts, who plays Holly, his mother.
This film is essentially a mother-son film, and without the natural dynamic between Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts this film would not have a memorable cell in its body. The most compelling part about the character that Roberts plays is that at no moment do you ever see her as a victim. She is strong and stern with a heartwarming vulnerability that never lets you doubt her affections. She embodies a genuine and authentic take on motherhood that we don’t often see in these films, never handling her son with kid gloves. There is a deep well of understanding that Roberts brings to the character that is as engaging as it is empathetic. Much like John McClane in Die Hard, she is a badass with a heart of gold, which becomes much more useful in the second half of the film when the tone and even genre changes.
In an odd turn, Peter Hedges flips the tone from family drama to crime thriller. It is done competently, but the film clearly has a fracture point that separates the two storylines making it feel like two different films. Separately, both are good and work individually, but as a cohesive film, it crumbles. It almost feels like the first half of the film is a preface to the second half. The connecting thread is our two main characters, which end up being the only thing that lets you know it’s even the same film. Like the bumpy road to recovery, Ben is Back hits several speed bumps along the way, but thanks to the deft handling of Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, they prove to be little more than turbulence.