“I’m not worth it.”
Ben Is Back definitely lacks a delicate touch when it comes to the story’s sensitivity department, filling its role like a new UPS hire unintentionally shaking and rattling around a package that’s been marked as fragile before gently setting it at our doorstep. Visually the film lacks a stylistic cohesion, tonally the narrative drives on two vastly different landscapes, and it’s all joined together by a bridge that somehow bears the weight of its lies and misgivings and tremendous deceptions. It has to be so hard to make a great film about the machinations of addiction because the underlying driving force is so inherently ugly, so impure, so unnaturally opaque. Ben Is Back isn’t a great film either, yet its main source of empathy manages to ring true even when the drama mostly rings false.
An opiate addicted young man leaves sober living to return home for the holidays at the half-hearted request of his mother Holly (Julia Roberts). He’s the titular and troubled Ben (Lucas Hedges), found standing in the driveway unannounced, his presence sending a startling shockwave through those in the car. Holly is happy to see her dark angel, meanwhile the rest of the family maintains their guard. He’s cried wolf too many times to be welcomed with open arms. Ben’s sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is skeptical, mean, even petulant. She doesn’t want to experience another tragic episode with her doomed brother. As the stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance) shares a harsh and vital truth. “If he were black he’d be in jail by now.” The first half of the film outperforms the latter because it’s willing to communicate these emotions, to hunker down and deal with the simmering pot of inner turmoil.
Things boil over, as you’d likely expect, and in any other type of film I’d have been infuriated by the lack of logic and sense that this wayward route takes. But this is a film about addiction, its unshakable grip over the addict’s unconscious, and the unfair effects that it pushes onto the people closest in our lives. Ben Is Back features far too much melodrama and a few truly cringe-worthy scenes, in which Holly confronts an old Doctor she believes got him hooked and in the other she even gives a dose to Ben’s addled old friend in exchange for information about her now missing son. This movie is deeply, deeply flawed, as is the very nature of the all too common story at its center. It’s exactly the kind of extreme story you can can imagine happening in subtler ways all across the country.
I don’t want to keep nitpicking this movie apart and highlighting all of the missteps. Sure, it could’ve been better, and I think a director with a stronger vision than Peter Hedges might have even snuck it into awards chatter. None of that really matters though. What’s important is that this film understands and accurately portrays a person calling out for help because they can’t help themselves, and as Holly spends Christmas Eve doing a ride-along with Ben through the sins of his past, the movie also shows the binding, determined love a good parent has for their child, no matter how broken or damaged they might be. Ben Is Back feels like a movie that’s in a pile of pieces, and by the end the fantastic performances from Roberts and Hedges encourage us to believe that it has the conviction to become whole again and to own its scars. I didn’t like the film despite its flaws; I liked it because of them.
“It works if you work it.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5