Ben is Back Review: An up and down sort of film
An interesting premise, with moments of brilliance from Julia Roberts, but the below-par execution and an average performance from Lucas Hedges has let the film down
Ben Is Back disappointed me more than it ought to have. I had expected more from the film. Things we have high expectations of, fall short nine times out of ten. And this is one of those nine. The story it narrates may not necessarily conjure up the phrase 'original idea', but there is no denying the potential it possesses.
Director – Peter Hedges
Cast – Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B Vance, Kathryn Newton
A troubled teenaged drug addict returns home from his controlled, intoxicant-free, rehab-like facility on Christmas Eve. His family - comprising a fiercely loyal mother, a wary stepfather, two step-siblings who adore him, a skeptical sister, and a beloved dog - do not know what to make of his sudden appearance. They aren’t entirely sure about what is to be done, either. Should they send him back from whence he came? Should they let him stay, and watch him unravel…or be pleasantly surprised? Are they to trust him this time around? Has Ben, perhaps, mended his ways? There are many questions that go through the minds of his holiday-loving suburban family, but it is his mother’s opinion that holds the most credence. Just the basic premise of Ben Is Back piques your interest. That being said, and despite an in-form Julia Roberts as Holly Burns, the film falters by choosing to play it safe instead of treading into the real darkness that is serious drug addiction and recovery. Though the film is by no means a bad one, it is perhaps an unrealistic/below-par performance from fellow lead, Lucas Hedges, that takes the wind out of its sails. Unlike his much-admired role in Boy Erased, Hedges’ Ben doesn’t succeed in convincing us of his past troubles with substance abuse. Something about the character does not come off as authentic. Whether this is a deliberate attempt by the senior Hedges (who happens to be the director) to make the character more appealing/lovable or whether it is just the actor not fitting well into the role, is hard to tell. But it definitely shows. His goody-goody image (Ben is either apologetic or guilty about his misdeeds, and nothing else) makes you wonder about the whole premise of the narrative. Wouldn’t it have been wiser to display his demons for all to see? While the plot does invite the audience to be skeptical of Ben and his many promises, it turns out that almost all of his intentions were good from the start. And this is where the film falls away a little.
Ben Is Back is a contrast of two acting performances, that of Julia and Hedges. While the latter’s is mediocre, Julia as the troubled character’s powerhouse mother who is willing to do anything to get her son clean, is quite outstanding. Not just are we treated to the ubiquitous Julia smile every now and then, we see exactly why she has been such a contender over the years. Her Holly Burns wears many hats – hats she must use wisely if she were ever to get her son on the straight and narrow. She is as capable of defending her child and assuaging his fears/doubts as she is of showing the boy what tough love looks like. And even though she goes on a wild goose chase looking for Ben in the dead of night, she has to assure her family that all will be okay, eventually. So, she must be the rock of not only her teenaged son’s life, but that of her worried family back home too. Holly’s maternal joy, sorrow, and instinct are on full display, thanks to a top-notch Julia Roberts.
One scene that is rather dark works well, with Julia at the centre of it. At the shopping mall, Holly and Ben run into his old doctor – a man who happens to suffer from Alzheimer’s. As the doctor’s wife is away momentarily, Holly does not hesitate to blame the man for her son’s addiction (he prescribed drugs to the younger Ben even though he knew the medicines were addictive) and tells him that she doesn’t for an instant believe the diagnosis of his memory loss. And with a charming smile on her face, says, “I hope you die.” The suddenness of the exchange is what catches you off guard. This particular sequence, though not too relevant to the story, is eerie beyond words, and ought to have been the course the film should have taken.
The other criticism I level at Ben Is Back is its editing. Jumping forward without clearly establishing what just transpired, takes place a bit too often for my liking. A scene in which Holly drives Ben to his old drug headquarters (he used to be a dealer too) falls into this category. After realising that no one operates from there anymore, Ben returns to the car. The vehicle fails to start despite multiple tries. He tells his mother that they need to refuel. Cut to the next sequence, and the two of them are at the gas station, plotting their next move while topping up the tank. How they magically got there, with a car that had broken down mere minutes ago, beats me.
I get the whole ‘feel good’ Christmas spirit and all that, so the ending was going to be predictable. But the real let-down is how abruptly it all comes to a close. Almost makes it look like it wasn’t thought through at all. Ben Is Back is what I would refer to as an up and down kind of film. It has an interesting premise, with moments of brilliance from Julia Roberts, but the below-par execution of its storyline and an average performance from Lucas Hedges put a spoke in the wheel for a film that had immense potential.