'Ben is Back' and Roberts Returns

Ben is Back
(USA, 103 min.)
Written and directed by Peter Hedges
Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton
Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges star in Ben is Back
Courtesy Elevation Pictures
Ben is Back might be the most depressing Christmas movie since It’s a Wonderful Life. But if there is a Jimmy Stewart in Hollywood today, his spirit endures in Julia Roberts’ infectious smile. Roberts is heartbreakingly good in Ben is Back playing Holly Burns, the devoted mother fighting to save her family with the same indefatigable goodwill that makes audiences cheer for George Bailey year after year. She gives one of her best and most surprising performances opposite Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased) in this engaging, emotionally draining, and ultimately rewarding portrait of addiction’s ability to tear families apart.

Ben is Back makes a fair companion piece to this fall’s other emotionally exhausting study of a family broken by addiction and united by the will to recover, Beautiful Boy starring Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell. Both films feature young men who fall into the trap of addiction and see their devoted parents tested by seemingly endless cycles of relapses and recoveries. The latest cycle nips Holly like a bittersweet kiss under the mistletoe when Ben appears unexpectedly at the family home on Christmas Eve. Holly greets him with effusive happiness while her daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) protests.

This reunion is a happy one, albeit a suspicious one too. Ben is on leave from rehab, having been excused under ambiguous circumstance. Holly doesn’t say anything other than to express her joy at Ben’s return, along with concerns for his recovery, but behind Roberts’ big and toothy smile is a tragic mask that reveals a familiar situation. Ben’s returns imply a relapse, and Holly scuttles around the house hiding pills, jewellery, and anything that may feed the habits of her beautiful boy.

Ben is Back, like Beautiful Boy, conveys the difficulty of restoring trust in a relationship after it’s been broken by addiction. Like Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze) says in Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions, “You should never trust a junkie. They make a habit of lying.” Holly’s happiness over Ben’s return is intimately connected with her instincts to protect him, as well as Ivy and her two younger children from her marriage to Neal (Courtney B. Vance), Ben’s stepfather. This instinct ultimately overrides the joy of the reunion, since Holly recognizes that letting her guard down to bask in the Yuletide spirit could disarm her. As she takes Ben through their suburban neighbourhood to do a little Christmas shopping and spend some quality time together, the reunion is marked by security checks, inspections, and tests for any breach of trust.

The events take a dark turn when Ben’s past catches up with him and threatens the family. However, writer/director Peter Hedges (Lucas’s father) has a firm handle on the tone and delicacy of the family dynamics. Back in dysfunctional family mode after 2003’s Thanksgiving flick Piece of April, Hedges keeps the family’s downward spiral real and raw, favouring the ugliness of the situation to give audiences an intimate view of the everyday hell that parents experience as their children battle addiction. Ben is Back adds a complicated dynamic to the mix when Hedges reveals that the source of Ben’s addiction is not the usual excuse of boredom, bad choices, and falling in with the wrong crowd. In a great scene, Roberts confronts the doctor who prescribed painkillers to Ben when he broke his leg as a young teen and kept increasing the dosage, feeding Ben’s recovery and precipitating his addiction. This choice in the scripting ensures that the illness, not the individual, is under the microscope.

Ben is Back is stylistically more conservative than its kaleidoscopic companion Beautiful Boy, but the two films give frank and sobering portraits of addiction and of the lengths to which parents go to protect their children. The two films feature bravura performances by their young stars and offer further proof that Hedges and Chalamet have strong futures ahead of them. Where Beautiful Boy falters is in the dramatic limitations of Carell, who is greatly eclipsed by Chalamet’s Brando-esque screen presence, Roberts commands Ben is Back equally with Hedges, and lets the mother-son relationship balance the dramatic scale of the film.

Roberts hasn’t been given material this good in years and she knows a great part when she sees one. She is rarely this open and vulnerable onscreen, like in one devastating scene that feels ripped from the hospital halls of Terms of Endearment and sees Holly tearfully enter a police station and beg the officers to do anything they can to find Ben. Her aforementioned scene with Ben’s doctor, on the other hand, brings out her August: Osage County acerbity as her she threatens the old man from behind her signature smile with a remark of well-deserved coldness that cuts sharply. George Bailey might never have said such a nasty thing in Bedford Falls, and one hardly anticipates it to arise from Roberts’ mouth, either. Ben is Back isn’t an expected pick for the holiday season, but few movies this season will make audiences cherish the gift of family so sincerely.

Ben is Back opens in theatres on December 14.