Roberts and Hedges effectively play a struggling mother and son in ‘Ben Is Back’
Written and directed by: Peter Hedges
Starring: Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges
“Ben Is Back” – “Instead of a criminal or a drug addict, I was looking at a boy, just a boy.” – Shannon A. Thompson, “Take Me Tomorrow”
Ben (Lucas Hedges) is back home on Christmas Eve.
Patches of crusty snow are scattered on suburban lawns, wintery-grays fill the skies and leafless trees remind us that warm weather won’t hug this neighborhood for a few distant months. It might be comfy inside Ben’s house, but this (roughly) 18-year-old kid is locked out, because he did not tell his mom Holly (Julia Roberts), stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance) and siblings that he was arriving today.
Once Holly, however, sees her son at the top of the driveway, she runs to him and throws her arms around his shoulders with an emotional concoction of disbelief and joy. You see, Ben is not on his college break. He took an unannounced leave from a rehabilitation center. Ben is a drug addict and should focus on his recovery, but Holly wished that he could be home for Christmas, and the young man took her request literally.
Writer/director Peter Hedges – who directed “Pieces of April” (2003) and “Dan in Real Life” (2007) and wrote “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993) - literally casts his son Lucas in this painful story about addiction that will figuratively put the audience through the wringer. Although Ben’s issues impact every family member, the film primarily focuses on his relationship with his mother, and Lucas and Julia deliver two remarkable performances. In fact, Roberts deserves her fifth Oscar nomination, and even though 2018 is a crowded field for female lead performances, her work “Ben Is Back” is that good.
The film’s narrative lasts for less than a day, but Roberts seems to assemble Holly’s years of historical anguish over Ben’s addiction. Holly retains both her uncompromising love for her son and the heartbreak caused by an emotional wrecking ball wrapped in his compulsions and boorish adolescence.
Once Ben arrives, Holly and Neal decide that he will stay for a day, because it’s Christmastime. This means, however, that Ben has to play by Holly’s rules, which include not leaving her sight during his entire visit. No drugs. She means business for Ben’s sake, but in reality, she is protecting her family and herself, because Neal, Holly and their other children Ivy (Kathryn Newton), Liam (Jakari Fraser), and Lacey (Mia Fowler) have been put through hell because of his past behavior.
Right away, Peter establishes an apprehensive tone.
Holly feels conflicted-joy, but Ivy repeatedly reminds her that Ben’s unexpected entrance cannot be a welcome one. At this point, the audience does not realize the extent of Ben’s painful reach, however Ivy delivers numerous warning shots. This heightens our anxiety, and it is written all over Holly’s face, as she copes with a mix of the stern responsibilities of motherhood, love for her son and self-preservation.
Ben feels anxiety as well. The pressure to use, but his struggle also lies within his home town. He carved a brutal path of destruction through these manicured cul-de-sacs, so returning home to face his neighbors – even for just 24 hours – is Ben’s cross to bear. Embarrassment and/or shame can appear during any ill-timed glance at a mall food court, convenience store or church, which makes this harmless visit with family a painful reminder of the past.
In “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) could not tolerate the thought of returning to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. due to the anguish of his personal tragedy.
Even though time is supposed to heal all wounds, memories do not fade.
In writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s affecting film, he flashes back to Lee’s said incident, and the agony punches us in the stomach and leaves us emotionally doubled-over for the remainder of the 2-hour 17-minute runtime and for two years (and counting) afterwards.
Peter does not include a similar moment in “Ben Is Back”, but he reveals Ben’s torment during a chosen confession to a room full of strangers with Holly present. He spills his guts, and although we do not see Ben’s transgressions, his partial list of admissions is enough, as the scene confirms Ivy’s initial feelings, when Holly meets Ben on their driveway.
“Ben Is Back” takes unexpected turns along the asphalt in this suburban Northeastern or Mid Atlantic community, and admittedly, it flirts with implausibility in a couple cases, but the film draws up a plot that squarely falls on mother and son. Peter regularly follows their ragged journey with a handheld camera, and he sometimes micro-shadows Holly’s lateral and vertical movements. This cinematically – and perhaps unconsciously – helps pull us into Holly’s experience, but Roberts’ layered portrayal of a damaged mother carries us on her own. To prepare for this role, Roberts said in a recent interview that she did not meet with mothers of addicts for a very specific reason.
“I didn’t…it seemed terribly selfish to meet with someone and ask them to unpack their heartbreak for my creative benefit,” she said.
Well, throughout the 1-hour 43-minute runtime of “Ben Is Back”, it truly feels like Holly and Ben have been struggling for years, when she looks at her boy on this particular day.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.