This article was originally published on Film Threat (December 7, 2018).
While writing the intense and brilliant Ben Is Back, Peter Hedges had a very specific narrative in mind to uniquely address the overwhelming drug epidemic, an increasingly important topic that has been the focal point of several films and TV shows this year. In his surprisingly funny and heartbreakingly honest film, we witness a crucial 24-hour period in Ben’s (Lucas Hedges) life. He is a recovering addict who desperately struggles to make amends, painfully grapples with sobriety, and remorsefully faces the consequences of his tumultuous past. Through all of these challenges, his loving mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), steadfastly remains by his side.
The engaging emotional roller coaster begins when Ben unexpectedly comes home for Christmas. He has had a rocky road to sobriety and caused a lot of damage before going to rehab, so not everyone is quick to welcome him home with open arms. His younger sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), is pragmatic and protective. She wants to do what is best for her family, so she calls their step-dad, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), for back-up when she fears Holly might be too trusting of her prodigal son. A very realistic family meeting follows.
Holly cleared all the cupboards of any temptation and Ben is more than willing to comply with whatever course of action his parents see fit. He’ll go back to rehab if they think this is too much, too soon. Ultimately, mother and son win them over. Ben is given a chance to prove how far he has come and he agrees to all of their terms, one of which includes having Holly as his shadow.
“He has had a rocky road to sobriety and caused a lot of damage…not everyone is quick to welcome him home…”
This is where Roberts and Hedges’ natural chemistry and endearing dynamic steals the show. They deliver flawless performances in this gripping and poignant film. Mother and son experience a gambit of emotions while on this unpredictable journey together. Their candor and concern for one another are entertaining and inspiring. For example, Holly tags along to an impromptu meeting where Ben shares a little too much information and apologizes to his mom for it in front of the group. Roberts flashes her iconic smile, and our hearts melt as we see how cool Ben and Holly are with each other.
Suddenly, this family drama takes a clever twist and transforms into a mother-son caper when the family dog is kidnapped by someone from Ben’s mysterious and regrettable past. As they frantically drive through his old haunts, Holly begins learning more about his high life. She tackles shocking revelations with grace, understanding, and compassion. Roberts unleashes her Mama Bear in all her glory. F-bombs fly and tears flow as she fearlessly strives to protect and help her aching child. It all feels so remarkably real, and you are with her, feeling the anguish in every unforeseeable second. In return, Ben cunningly attempts to shield his loving mother from further heartbreak as he endeavors to right his wrongs and searches for their beloved dog in the darkest corners of his past.
Once again this year, we see a film about the power of unconditional love. A parent refuses to give up on her child and is present for him at every turn. Nothing that Ben has done is bad enough to lose his mother’s love. She will do anything for him. That protective and loving instinct is what every child needs and deserves. There is no specific event or reason that caused Ben’s spiral into a life of drug use. It just happened and once it started, it was very hard to stop. His whole family helps him as much as possible, but Ben is the only one who holds his fate.
“You will laugh, cry, and be left breathless by Hedges’ heart-pounding adventure…”
Hedges moves viewers with another phenomenal performance worthy of all the accolades. His struggle is sincere and nuanced. We can see him thinking about the consequences of every action. He portrays Ben with intelligence, heart, and humor. Between his performances in Ben Is Back and Boy Erased, young Hedges is destined for another trip around the awards show circuit.
Peter Hedges (yes, he is Lucas’ father) shared his feelings on family and the role his concept of parent-child relationships plays in his films during a screening of Ben Is Back at the 2018 Mill Valley Film Festival. He said, “Parents belong to their children…Children do not belong to their parents.” We seldom hear such sentiment and this empathetic notion is beautifully evident in his film.
Holly loves her son and proves that she will go to any lengths for him. She doesn’t require any kind of reciprocation. As her child, Ben owes her nothing. If he falls, she wants to be there to catch him. There is no blame or badgering. When she does chastise him it is in the most profound and gut-wrenching manner because she wants him to resist the urge to slip back into old habits. She wants her son to live and he is making every painstaking effort to stay clean. Their unconditional love is mutual and admirable.
Ben Is Back showcases the parental equivalent of “#RelationshipGoals.” You will laugh, cry, and be left breathless by Hedges’ heart-pounding adventure and intimate portrait of family love. This film will hurt and capture your heart in the best way. It is without a doubt an unmissable cinematic achievement.
Ben Is Back (2018) Directed and written by Peter Hedges. Starring Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, Tim Guinee. Ben Is Back screened at the 2018 Mill Valley Film Festival.
10 out of 10 stars