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.