Ben Is Back

Ben Is Back

2018, R, 103 min. Directed by Peter Hedges. Starring Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton, Courtney B. Vance.

REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., Dec. 21, 2018

I’m not so sure about the idea that drug addiction is a “disease”; I’ve always viewed it as a symptom of despair. It’s recklessness running rampant in the mind of someone who doesn’t care what the outcome is between living and dying. 2017 was a peak year of sorts for drug overdoses, causing more deaths than gun violence, car crashes, and AIDS combined. Concern for the growing “crisis” has been reflected in a likely place – film and TV – where I’ve recently noticed a more humane portrayal of the addict (6 Balloons, Beautiful Boy, The Haunting of Hill House), though it’s no less dark, and Ben Is Back fits the new mold.

Writer/director Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Dan in Real Life) takes care with the subject of opioid addiction, placing blame where it is due without being heavy-handed (save that for the documentaries), while casting the addict in a kind yet realistic light. Ben (Lucas Hedges, the director’s son) is 19 years old and 77 days sober (which is actually kind of fresh) when he shows up at home unannounced on Christmas Eve. After a couple of establishing shots of the town, Ben is pictured rummaging around the backyard, hoodie on, vape in hand, like some kind of burglar – and he is a burglar of sorts, breaking open old wounds and stirring up his family’s (not unearned) mistrust. His mother Holly (Roberts) gives him 24 hours, but she’s on him like a parole officer the whole time. It doesn’t take long for Ben’s past and former misdeeds to gurgle up like so much black bile: It turns out not everyone is pleased by his return, least of all the drug dealers he still owes money to. When someone breaks in (foreshadowing!) and makes off with the family dog, Ben embarks on a mission of retrieval, and Holly will be damned if she’s not going along.

Their descent into an underworld, which constitutes the second half of the film, is more suspenseful than one might expect from a “family drama” – it’s darkly comedic at times, has elements of a thriller and maybe even horror, by featuring an addict’s triggers and the reanimation of ghosts (though strictly in metaphor). There’s that old sense of despair too, as no scene in the movie is more heartbreaking than the mother asking her son where she should bury him (home for the holidays, indeed). The family is clearly affluent, which seems to be Hedges’ way of saying we only care about these problems when they affect rich white kids. The choice of casting Ben’s stepfather as a person of color (Vance) is likely dependent upon the deliverance of one line (he says that if Ben were black, he’d be in jail already), and that feels a little too similar to tokenism. If it were a theme more deeply explored in the movie, it wouldn’t have stuck out so much (though it doesn’t make it any less true). It’s still an impactful film, one that’s made for the season of giving, if giving means never giving up.

For an interview with writer/director Peter Hedges, read "The Personal Stories Behind Ben Is Back," Dec. 14.

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More Ben Is Back
The Personal Stories Behind <i>Ben Is Back</i>
The Personal Stories Behind Ben Is Back
Writer/director Peter Hedges on family, alcoholism, and going home

Richard Whittaker, Dec. 14, 2018

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Peter Hedges in Real Life
Peter Hedges in Real Life
The writer/director returns to his roots with new novel The Heights

Michael Agresta, March 19, 2010

The People Person
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Peter Hedges' Pieces of April brings the novelist-screenwriter out of the quiet and into the filmmaking fray

Marc Savlov, Nov. 7, 2003

More Peter Hedges Films
The Odd Life of Timothy Green
This family film with magical elements is from the writer/director of Dan in Real Life.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Aug. 17, 2012

Dan in Real Life
What passes for real life in this Steve Carell film is as genially inoffensive and predictable as the average TV sitcom.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Oct. 26, 2007

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Ben Is Back, Peter Hedges, Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton, Courtney B. Vance

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