Driven by the performances of Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, Peter Hedges’ Ben Is Back (2018) tells the tale of a recovering individual with substance use disorder who is coming home for Christmas. It’s a gripping and visceral film that somehow fell through the cracks when it was released. In fact, the film never got much heat on the awards circuit or at the domestic box office, capping out at just over $10 million worldwide, with most of its revenue coming from overseas. Perhaps, Ben Is Back’s failure to pick up steam was due to the fact that actor Lucas Hedges also starred in a social message film that year, “Boy Erased,” which was based on a best-selling book, and so this one got overshadowed.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the film’s debut in Toronto, it’s worth taking another look at this gem of a movie.  Directed and written by Lucas Hedges’ father, Peter, the film sticks out for the tightness of its narrative and camerawork. The film is set over the course of approximately 24 hours with a minimal cast: Ben, his mother Holly (Julia Roberts), step-father Neil (Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance), sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and two step-siblings in tow (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser).

Ben is first revealed to us and his family as the front beams of the family car as it returns from church on Christmas Eve – a very literal deer in the headlights and a surprise for all parties involved. Holly’s surprise and subsequent embrace of Ben, like she’s witnessing a miracle, sends the message that in this mama-bear role, we are in store for a prime Julia Roberts performance. It’s the kind of work she did in the 90s that catapulted her to an unparalleled place in Hollywood.

Neil initially comes off as skeptical and a semi-villain of this story — a rather bold move by a filmmaker in this era to make a Black character thorny and unlikeable – in thinking something as simple as a son wanting to reunite with his family for Christmas could be a bad thing. Most of us haven’t seen someone with a drug addiction up close. Therefore, we’re inclined to see him as a man who’s not particularly concerned about a son who’s not biologically his. The story’s biggest magic trick is showing us lay people just how dangerous a person with drug addiction is to himself if he’s not watched 24*7. Ben’s withdrawal symptoms are visceral and cast a constant shadow in this work.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté
A still from Ben is Back (2018).
A still from Ben is Back (2018).

In order for the doting Holly to convince the skeptical Neil to give her son a chance (he’s not supposed to be leaving rehab this early), Neil compromises and allows Ben to stay only if he’s under constant supervision. Fittingly enough, the camera rarely leaves Ben. For the vast majority of the film, every scene involves Ben. Subsequently, when he and his mom split, the dramatic impact is felt that much more as both the characters feel the absence of the other.

The irony of Ben is that he is a character who has nothing in his heart but a desire to do good for the people he loves. Positioning him as a Jesus figure might be a bit of a lofty comparison (though it is telling that the film is set during Christmas). Still, within the story’s time frame, the audience only sees him as a persecuted figure. His stepfather isn’t fully compassionate towards his plight; his ex-girlfriend’s dad breaks his window in uncontrolled rage; his former boss won’t let him be; the doctor who got him hooked absolves himself of responsibility; and we indirectly learn that the government won’t fund his rehab either.

Aside from the physiological and psychological pain of trying to get clean, this character owes real debts for his past sins. In a sense, he’s like the great Western anti-heroes who have to ride out to the sunset because their sins are too large to fit into the new society he outsized in cultivating.

Except that this isn’t a Western. This is a troubled kid with a fiercely loving mother. The most fascinating thing about Holly is how she eventually straddles two worlds in this errant journey in pursuit of her son. Her world of Church choir practices and PTAs comes head-to-head with the criminal underworld as the night goes on. It all comes to a head when she’s forced to pay off her son’s former childhood friend, Spencer (David Zaldivar), with enough for a quick fix to get information about her son.

Spencer suffers from substance use disorder and will likely not stay long in this world if he remains on his current path. Yet, Spencer can’t shake the childhood habit of calling his mom’s friend “Mrs. B” despite the twisted fact that she’s more his supplier at that moment than the other adult in the room on a play date. For her part, Holly laments how she has known him since he was a baby, and time hasn’t taken him in the right direction.  While this is a kinetic film with a palpable sense of danger, few films would have thought to make room for such an introspective moment.

Read More: 15 Must-See Coming Of Age Films Of 2018

Ben is Back (2018) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Ben is Back (2018) Movie Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance
Where to watch Ben is Back

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