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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Ben Is Back

“Tragic and Inspiring”


I’ve always held a special place in my heart for films that take place over the course of 24 hours as there’s something very tragic and very inspiring in the fact that so much happens in one day. Clearly, this is something Peter Hedges appreciates as his new film, Ben Is Back takes place over the course of Christmas Eve and is very much tragic and inspiring. The film follows Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) whose son Ben (Lucas Hedges), a drug addict in recovery arrives at Holly’s home for Christmas. Holly is thrilled to have her son home for the holiday despite the concerns of Ben’s stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) and younger sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton). Holly’s attempts to keep everything together gets more difficult as the day turns into night as the past is ugly and not as forgiving as she is.

It’s not rare for Julia Roberts to portray someone whose powerless but it is rare for her to portray someone who feels powerless. Usually, her anger always gets her what she wants in the end but Ben Is Back is more of a long-term situation for her. When you have a child whose an addict, you can’t just throw money at the problem to make it go away. It’s a long excruciating process that has to be dealt with patiently. Holly feels powerless as she couldn't stop the events of her son’s past but for his sake, she’s not going to act powerless. It’s clear that the everything will be fine facade she parades has been her constant coping strategy and is well intentioned, but it hasn’t really gotten her anywhere. As a lifelong Julia Roberts fan, I was impressed at seeing this side of her. As a mother herself, the role must have been challenging for her, but she’s always been an actor who's been able to make her audiences see her and her characters at the same time. The situation would be hard for any mother and Roberts doesn't have to do anything to make that known. It’s a truth that’s just there.

Lucas Hedges always reminds us all that his contributions to independent cinema is where his home is as that’s where the best characters live and Hedges seems to keep on going door to door, claiming them all. His performance in Ben Is Back is educational as there’s so much ignorance inside the minds of those who assume addicts don’t want to get better because many of them keep making such bad choices. This is not Ben. He does make bad choices but it’s not just out of addiction but guilt. The guilt of the consequences of what he’s previously done. His real problem is that he doesn’t value himself. If he doesn’t feel he deserves to get better, he won’t. He has to feel like he matters enough to do so, and he doesn't. "I’m not worth it" he says to Holly at one point. "If you really knew me, you’d be done with me." When Hedges says this, you don’t see someone whose saying it to feel sorry for himself. You see someone who really believes what he says and what he says couldn't be more untrue.

Courtney B. Vance and Kathryn Newton’s roles are really meant to help set up the film, and give their characters just as big a stage as Roberts and Hedges. Their performances are beautiful and important because they show that while you'd think the tension of the situation would cause a lack of chemistry, chemistry is indeed there. That’s because audiences will know these people. They’ll know this family and who they are. Neal’s fear of Ben’s addictions come across as anger and a lack of faith when in fact, it really is just fear because you can’t control an addict. They have to do most of the work and everyone else has to be along for the ride. Ivy’s memories of the past leave her in a state of emotional numbness as she’s angry at her brother but it’s really that she just has no more faith in him, leaving Holly as a sole survivor of sorts. A film like Ben Is Back requires you to care about the characters and you will care because these are not characters that are made up of puppets for an audience's amusement. They are real people who feel what they do for themselves.

The writing is crystal clear real as Peter Hedges wrote it as well as directed it. Someone with his talent should always direct the material they create as he has vision so he can use it. I’ve often felt the best cinematography is night cinematography and the film is a reminder of that truth. Cinematography helps tell the story and this story is told right through the right lens.

Though drug addiction is nothing to fool around with, the film does have a kind of suspenseful vibe to it that starts kicking around halfway through the film. It’s a vibe that requires believable buildup which is right there in it’s place. The film will leave you feeling more aware of the subject matter and remind you that taking it one day at a time is reality for many families and the overall goal of getting better is the light you want to turn on. Everything else can wait.

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