BEN IS BACK
Director: Peter Hedges
Screenwriter: Peter Hedges
Courtney B. Vance
Rachel Bay Jones
Runtime: 103 mins.
Australian release date: 31 January 2019
Previewed at: Roadshow Theatrette, Sydney, on 17 January 2019.
Following hot on the heels of Felix van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy is another Hollywood depiction of drug addiction and the terrible impact it has on families. Directed by Peter Hedges, Ben Is Back is more brutal than its predecessor and gutsier in its portrayal of the constant doubt that surrounds an ‘in recovery’ junkie’s behaviour. In the heart of middle America, statistics show that opioid and methamphetamine addiction is a problem being faced by a great many people, who have to learn to deal with a situation that takes a toll from everyone involved, addicts and their parents and siblings alike.
In a small town not far from New York City, a family is preparing for their Christmas Eve celebrations. Upon arriving home, a mother, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) and her daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton), are shocked by the unexpected appearance of a hooded young man waiting in their driveway. It turns out that he is Holly’s son Ben (Lucas Hedges, the director’s son), who informs them that he’s been encouraged by his sponsor at his rehab clinic to try and make the most of the festive season with his family and they’ve given him 24 hours leave. Holly is thrilled but Ivy is clearly not happy, so there is obviously a history of chaos resulting from his opioid addiction. We see Holly discretely removing all medications from her bathroom and gathering up her jewellery, placing the items out of temptation’s reach. Ben and Ivy are offspring from Holly’s previous marriage and now Holly has to convince her second husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), that all is under control and there is no threat to their younger two children, Lacey (Mia Fowler) and Liam (Jakari Fraser). With tension in the air, the family heads out to their church’s evening service but, when they return, they find the house has been burgled and their beloved little dog Ponce has been kidnapped. When Ben says he’s leaving to get the dog back, Holly insists on accompanying him and thus begins her descent into an urban hell of which she was entirely unaware - the junkie’s underworld.
In one of her finest recent performances, Julia Roberts is relentless in her depiction of desperate maternal concern and yet she consistently conveys the suspicion that exists between the mother and her son; he’s lied to her before and her face shows it. Young Lucas Hedges once again shows how adept he is as an actor, after his most recent role as a troubled gay man in Boy Erased. Despite the bleak subject matter and snowy locations, Stuart Dryburgh’s assured lensing makes the movie look attractive and even inviting. Peter Hedges’ screenplay could have easily become melodramatic but it remains believable and stays within the borders of reality when mother and son go searching for the family pet. If anything, it shows how the fierce love of a mother for her son can overcome all. When interviewed, Hedges has talked about the society we live in today and how “people are cancelled very quickly” but, in his film, Holly refuses to give up on Ben. It’s an acute observation about a very real issue that exists when people can obtain opioids with ease (Ben was prescribed them by his local GP after a skateboarding accident) and the death rate is on the rise but little is being done to address it.
A question has to be asked about the timing of the film’s release because, despite its Christmas setting, this ain’t no feel-good holiday movie. Ben Is Back has not been nominated for any Academy Awards but, like many smaller films, it’s a worthy contender for its ability to deal with a subject that is often misunderstood and ignored. By doing so, it will perhaps make people more aware and more tolerant towards those who are caught up in the misery of addiction caused by legal prescriptions, because it’s a growing problem in Australia too.