Ben Is Back: Film Review
Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton, Courtney B Vance
Director: Peter Hedges
A film of two halves, very much held together by a career best from Julia Roberts, Peter Hedges' addiction drama Ben Is Back treads some of the same furrows ploughed by Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet in Beautiful Boy.
Set one Christmas Eve in rural America, Hedges is Ben, who returns without warning from the rehab centre he's been attending. While his mother Holly (played with emotional range and tenacity by Roberts) is ecstatic at his return, the rest of his family is wary, borderline suspicious.
However, over the 24 hour period, both Ben's resolve and Holly's love are tested, stretched to beyond breaking point.
Ben Is Back is a solid drama, that starts in a very familiar place and treads a familiar route before segueing into a different kind of film.
Hedges and Roberts deliver powerhouse performances that don't rely on the showy antics that can usually populate such dramas. And while Roberts' Holly delivers a couple of rants against the system that has pushed the drugs, this slight misstep is forgiven in the overall tableaux of the rest of the film.
Equally, Hedges gives Ben an edge of uncertainty, a feeling of a soul teetering on the edge as various truth bombs are slowly and subtly dropped by the script. While his relationship with Holly skirts around one of a child wanting to reconnect with his family, the film's indelibly exciting and emotionally raw.
Others get to flirt with this dramatic orbit too, but in the overall wash, Peter Hedges' script is about these two at the core - and consequently some of the later interactions with supporting players (notably Vance's husband Neil) feel less enticing as they could be, as they wallow in the underwritten and slightly cliched mire that's been created.
The second half of the film which switches from suburban angst to an examination of the druggy underbelly of Holly and Ben's home is an odd tonal lurch, feeling akin to Taken than anything else - and it also allows Hedges via Roberts to voice frustrations at drug laws and systems seemingly letting down the public. These moments derail the film and the intimate intentions of what transpires.
Ultimately though, Ben Is Back is a complex portrayal of a self-destructive relationship, an examination of the depths of love, and in Roberts, a sign that this actress continues to deliver a breadth that surprises and enthralls.