Julia Roberts at The Top of Her Game
Audiences are in for an extra dose of reality this holiday season with, Ben is Back. Starring the legendary Julia Roberts (Wonder, 2017) as Holly Burns and her son Ben, played by Lucas Hedges (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017), this family drama about drug addiction will surely tense up the hands and tug at the heart.
Ben has been away from his family at rehab for nearly four months due to his battle with opioids. As his family returns home from church on Christmas Eve, they are unexpectedly greeted with Ben on their front doorstep. Holly is simultaneously delighted and terrified at this sight. Ben, in very good spirits, said he just wanted to be with his family on Christmas and that his sponsor allowed it…but just for Christmas. While his step-siblings are overjoyed to have their big brother back, Ben’s biological sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton, Blockers, 2018) is doubtful – about Ben, his recovery and everything he’s claimed, thus far. Neal, Ben’s stepfather, played by Courtney B. Vance (Isle of Dogs, 2018), is also very weary of the situation. The film spans a 24-hour period in which audiences follow Ben and are taken on quite the ‘trip.’
Despite the family’s feelings and reactions regarding Ben’s homecoming, the film primarily focuses on the mother-son relationship. Throughout the first half of the film, audiences are exposed to the damage Ben caused during his addiction, including theft, chronic lying and betrayal. Given his sketchy past, Ben’s true intentions are constantly being tested, most of all, by his mom.
Holly loves and fears her son in the same breath. While compassionate as a mother, she delivers ‘tough love’ throughout a majority of the film, throwing “f-bombs” and ultimatums left and right. In one of Holly’s moments of distress and helplessness, she drags Ben to the local cemetery and says they won’t leave until Ben declares where he’d like to be buried as she’s convinced he will relapse and kill himself any day. As she has flashbacks of Ben lying unconscious from an overdose, Holly promises she will do all she can to help him, including keeping an eye on him at all times – whether it be standing in the bathroom while Ben relives himself, or accompanying him in a department store dressing room – nothing is off limits.
Roberts displays a remarkable performance in this film, possibly one of her best. While Vance gave a solid performance, he didn’t have a substantial amount of screen time to prove much more. The relationship between Roberts and Vance also didn’t seem natural; however the exceptional dynamic between Roberts and Hedges makes up for it. While the second half of the film seems to lose its footing a bit, it’s still worth hanging on.
The troubled-teen genre is certainly trending in 2018. Hedges also stars in Boy Erased where his parents cannot accept that he is gay, while rising star Timothée Chalamet stars as a meth addict in Beautiful Boy.
Ben is Back shows the harsh reality of addiction and how much of a toll it takes on everyone and everything around the addict. Unfortunately, the topic is not necessarily unfamiliar territory for audience members. If they weren’t directly impacted by addiction, they likely know someone who has.
Bottom Line: The performances by Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges are reason enough to see the deeply passionate and intense drama, Ben is Back. While the subject matter of addiction isn’t necessarily uplifting, it’s a prevalent issue that’s awareness is deserving of this vast platform.
Credits: Directed and written by Peter Hedges
Starring: Julia Roberts (Holly Burns), Lucas Hedges (Ben Burns), Courtney B. Vance (Neal Beeby), Kathryn Newton (Ivy Burns)
Studio: Black Bear Pictures
Running Time: 103 minutes
Jessica DeLong © December 5, 2018