Ben is Back
by Hope Madden
Family can be a nightmare during the holidays, eh? Well, if you think your Fox-News-spouting uncle is a problem, you need to meet Ben.
Yes, Ben is Back, the damaged teen at Christmas drama from writer/director Peter Hedges, is clear Oscar bait. It is, after all, a family drama starring two of the Academy’s favorite thespians, Julia Roberts and the filmmaker’s own son, Lucas Hedges.
Lucas Hedges plays Ben, the eldest son of Holly (Roberts), who surprises his family—mom, sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton), half siblings Lacey and Liam (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser, respectively) and stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance)—on Christmas Eve. Ben’s been away in rehab, and not everyone is as thrilled at the prospect of reliving Christmas Horrors Past as Holly seems to be.
Though filmmaker Hedges’s script has a few rough edges, one of its great strengths is its limits. Ben is Back chooses not to spell out every aspect of Ben’s addiction, his descent, his likely court-determined recover program. These are wise omissions as they make the slow reveals more powerful and leave you feeling less manipulated.
What unspools as a tense family drama takes a wild left turn by act three, when Ben’s shaky present and dark past come crashing into Holly’s living room only to make off with the family’s beloved mutt. The balance of the film sees mother and son drive deeper into an ugly abyss of sexual predators, junkies and criminals to have poor Ponce back for the siblings by Christmas morn.
Once the borderline thriller storyline takes flight, Hedges Senior flails a bit with pacing and tone. Hedges Junior and Roberts, however, lose nothing.
The voyage into the underbelly of Holly’s lovely suburbia offers not only some insight into the realities of drug addiction and our current opioid crisis, but allows these two talents the chance to mine their characters’ psyches.
Hedges never overstates the emotions roiling barely beneath the surface. He is almost simultaneously overjoyed, anxious, guilty, dishonest, tender, vulnerable, loyal, broken and resilient. There is nothing showy in his performance as he conveys with clarity the confusing mix of emotions and motives that surface from moment to moment.
Roberts, who has solidified her status as formidable character actor in own second act, takes command of this film and never gives an inch. She owns every scene, and equals Hedges in her own ability to swing—sometimes gently, sometimes seismically—from one emotion to the next. Again, there is nothing inauthentic or overly dramatic in this performance.
The film itself dips too often into maudlin traps. And though the third act is far from awful, the filmmaker’s insights for family dynamics and dysfunction are stronger.
He can cast the shit out of a movie, though.