The Personal Stories Behind Ben Is Back
Writer/director Peter Hedges on family, alcoholism, and going home
"I grew up in a family riddled with alcoholism. My mother was an active alcoholic, and left the family when I was 7."
Addiction is ubiquitous. Every family has a story, and novelist-turned-filmmaker Peter Hedges is no exception. An erstwhile honorary Austinite (he lived here in the early 1990s during the filming of his book What's Eating Gilbert Grape?), he's been back regularly, particularly at Austin Film Festival, as both a screenwriter and director. When it comes to his latest project, AFF 2018 centerpiece film Ben Is Back, Hedges is very precise in his use of language. That's scarcely surprising for a writer, but when he uses the term "abuser" he quickly corrects himself, referring to substance use disorder.
Addiction movies break down into two kinds. There are the glamorous, doomed (often artistic) junkies, and then there are those like Ben Is Back, where addiction is messy, and relationships are defined by love and mistrust. Hedges said, "There's no point in making this film if it's not going to be real and relatable, and shine a truthful light on this harrowing and horrible disease."
When he started writing Ben Is Back, he was clear on what he didn't want it to be – the standard rehab drama. He said, "I'd seen films where someone was using, and then hopefully pull it together." Instead, his pro/antagonist would be "someone who had some recovery, but not enough." At the same time, he wanted to tell the full story of a family: After all, his father – an Episcopal priest – spent much of his 58-year ministry "devoted to working with families, and the disease of alcoholism and drugs. So I grew up in a family that had been impacted, and I think it's informed everything that I've written, especially when I write about family."
His original idea was that the story would center around siblings, with a sister trying to get her brother clean. So he admitted to being surprised when the family dynamic shifted, and it became about a mother and son – in this case Holly, played by Julia Roberts, and Ben, played by Hedges' own son Lucas (Manchester by the Sea). He said, "I thought about what is the greatest love of all, and then I decided that I think that it's a mother for their child."
That timeless theme is part of why Hedges felt classical resonances in a searingly contemporary story as Holly risks everything to get her son back. First, the legend of Orpheus ("that love story of someone going into the underworld to bring their great love back"), and then the biblical tale of the prodigal son. "I've always loved that parable," he said. "The ne'er-do-well son returns, and the father throws a big party, and the other son is like, 'But I was perfect.' 'Well, you've been great, but he was lost and now he's found.'"
He's tackled these ideas of reunion before, in his 2003 directorial debut Pieces of April, with the family (led by mother Patricia Clarkson) driving from suburban New York into the boroughs to visit their estranged daughter (Katie Holmes), who is trying to scrabble a Thanksgiving dinner together. This time the roles were somewhat reversed when Ben reappears unannounced at the family home on Christmas Eve, claiming to have a furlough from his rehab program. By setting the story at a time of togetherness, Hedges said, "You feel what the family could be. First of all, you feel what the family is – it's functioning, it's funny, it's vital – but there's this one person who's struggling with this disease."
When Ben arrives, unannounced, the first instinct of his sister Ivy (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri's Kathryn Newton) is to call her stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance), who is far from happy about having the family junkie back. Hedges said, "It's very clear [that] she loves her brother very much, and she wants him to be well. She just doesn't trust him very much. And I really feel that [Neal] loves Ben, clearly loves his wife, but is very concerned that the whole ship is in danger of sinking here. In some sense, they're more clear-eyed about what's going on than Holly is, who's blinded by her ache to have that old relationship that she had with her son."
The underlying tension of Ben is in wondering when he'll burn the last bridge, and how hard will Holly keep trying to rebuild it. When it comes to real experiences of addiction, Hedges said, "One of the real questions that people keep facing in this is, what's the loving thing to do? Is the loving thing the seemingly kind thing, or is it the tough thing?"
What Hedges wanted to keep front and center was that the consequences of making the wrong choice could quite readily mean a quick OD and survivor's guilt – and even if everything is seemingly going fine, then all it takes is one moment. He said, "I read obituary after obituary, and people would comment in blogs or posts or articles, 'They were doing so well. They had six months, they'd had two years, they had five months. They came home, we went shopping, we went to the mall, they went to the bathroom, and then ....' People don't see it coming."
At the same time, he has personal experience of getting family members back from that brink. His mother came back into his life, sober, when he was 15, "and then for 22 years she worked in the recovery field, impacting hundreds and hundreds of people's lives."
There are no easy answers, a reality that has been reinforced for Hedges even through the reception to the first trailer. He broke the golden rule (never read the comments) and kept getting that diverse feedback. "One person said, 'Tough love worked for me, and that mother in the trailer should just employ tough love,' and someone else just said the date that their son died, and said, 'I employed tough love, and I really feel that if I hadn't employed tough love, my son might have lived.' So there they are, within three or four comments of each other, contradicting each other.'"
Just as there is a multitude of addiction stories, there is a rising tide of dramas dealing with its costs. From the true-life Beautiful Boy to Luke Crain's story in The Haunting of Hill House, the ongoing horror of the opioid crisis is a darkening shadow. It's a time of cultural critical mass that Hedges compares to his time in New York in the mid-1980s, when AIDS was at its devastating peak, and he was courtside for an artistic response "to this untenable epidemic ... Larry Kramer writes The Normal Heart, Tony Kushner writes Angels in America, and William Hoffman wrote As Is." Yet far from any sense of competition with those other addiction dramas, Hedges is rooting for them to all succeed. If there's been a wave so far, he said, "We're about to have a tsunami of stories, and we need to. ... It's going to take an army of stories that are going to move this into a kind of conversation." Fortunately, he sees exactly that kind of creative force forming, especially among younger writers. "People are trying to figure out how to put something useful into the world."
Useful. That's the key word. Like his father and mother before him, Hedges is trying to move the needle on this problem in his own way, even if it's just a fraction. He cited what Joel Edgerton said about his equally pointed film, gay conversion drama Boy Erased (which also stars Lucas). "I hope that this movie isn't needed in a few years, that no one needs to see it again because it did what it needed to do. I think anyone that deals with these issues would love for our films to not have to be made."
Ben Is Back is in theaters now. For reviews and showtimes visit our listings page.