With the opioid epidemic in the US (and elsewhere, for that matter) affecting so many lives, it’s not surprising that such stories are now making their way to the big screen. Just a few weeks ago we had the film, BEAUTIFUL BOY, which is based on the bookended memoirs of David and Nic Sheff. Now we have BEN IS BACK, and although this story is fiction, there’s no doubt it has its roots in actual events.
It’s the day before Christmas in a quiet town somewhere near New York City (the movie was filmed in and around White Plains and Nyack, NY) and Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) is busy getting into the spirit of the holiday with her kids, teenaged Ivy (Kathryn Newton, TV’s BIG LITTLE LIES; THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI; LADY BIRD), who is from her first marriage, and Lacey and Liam, who are from her second marriage to Neal (Courtney P. Vance, THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON; OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY; THE MUMMY; TERMINATOR: GENISYS). The family’s plans are thrown into disarray when Holly’s eldest, Ben (Lucas Hedges, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI; LADY BIRD; MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), suddenly arrives home on a 24-hour pass from the drug rehab centre where he’s been living. Holly is naturally overjoyed to have her son at home but Neal and Ivy are more than a little reserved in their excitement. To settle everyone’s concerns, Holly hides all the medicines around the house as well as her jewellery, and she lays down strict rules of behaviour that Ben must accept if he wants to stay. Ben agrees and the family moves forward with their plans but when Holly and Neal’s house is broken into and the family’s dog is taken, both Ben and Holly realise that there’s no such thing as making a clean break from your past.
Writer/director/producer Peter Hedges (ABOUT A BOY; WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?), who also happens to be Lucas’ dad, has unfortunately put two movies into one here and it just doesn’t work. The first half of the movie tells is an interesting story about how well a family knows, or thinks it knows, its recovering addict son/sibling and how this real national emergency’s tentacles have reached into nearly everyone’s home in the neighbourhood. The second half of the movie, however, is a crime thriller as Ben and Holly search for their dog. This is a far less interesting story that serves to shunt Ivy and Neal to the sidelines, leaving them to sit at home waiting for Holly to check in with them every once in a while. While we do get to see what Ben’s life was like before Holly and Neal took out a second mortgage on their home to pay for his rehab, it was far too drawn out and many of the secondary characters we’re introduced to could have been incorporated into the first story without all the driving around in the middle of the night and mobile phone drama.
Story problems aside, the film belongs to Roberts, who seems to be making a smooth transition from playing America’s Sweetheart to playing America’s Mom. And, as a mom, she’s a pretty cool one at that, using four-letter words when those are the words that can best convey one’s frustrations at the time and not being afraid to speak her mind. There’s a short but powerful scene involving her and actor David Zaldivar (in his first feature film), who plays one of Ben’s childhood friends and who is also an addict. Holly’s priority is to get Ben out of the jam that he’s put himself in but at that same time we can see her motherly compassion towards this young man too. She knows she can’t fix him but she also knows that he’s still someone’s son. It’s at that point that she really starts to understand Ben.
While better than BEAUTIFUL BOY, BEN IS BACK is not as good as it could have been. Certainly, check it out but not right away. Wait for it to come to a streaming service or an in-flight entertainment system near you.
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