There has been no shortage of addiction dramas during 2019. And while ‘Ben is back’ offers us a compelling performance from both Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts. The film sadly falls into a stereotyped and clumsy exploration of opioid drug addiction. One that never quite manages to claw its way out of the melodrama it creates.
It’s Christmas Eve in small-town America, and the Burns family are all ready to celebrate the big day. However, someone is missing from their Christmas table. Their son Ben (Hedges) who is in rehab following a long term drug addiction that has caused the family huge pain.
However, as Holly (Julia Roberts), husband Neal (Courtney B Vance) and daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) prepare for the big day, Ben unexpectantly walks down the driveway. Consequently sending the family into a spin while bringing deep-rooted divisions to the fore. Moreover, Ben’s rehab is not yet complete, and despite Holly’s delight at having him home. The rest of the family remain reserved about the dangers his return could bring. Dangers that soon come back to haunt the family. Leading to the truths of Ben’s addiction, and the ghosts of his past challenging the very fabric of family life.
Director Peter Hedges takes the brave move of focussing the film on one 24hr period. In effect trying to capture the sudden turbulence of Ben’s return. While also capturing the unrequited love of a mother in protecting their child. There are times where this dynamic works, especially when Hedges and Roberts are leading the drama. However, this dynamic is soon discarded in favour of a more generic thriller. The lurch from addiction drama to underground thriller losing the emotional attachment that helped the film work. Equally the Christmas setting that creates a beautiful visual divide. One that not only exudes the comfort of the family but also contrasts this with the cold depths of addiction. Is left hanging and never fully developed to its full potential.
Ben is Back therefore provides a frustrating viewing experience. One that never quite knows whether is wants to inhabit the addiction drama or thriller genre. Consequently only being saved from obscurity by the performances of its highly talented lead actors.
Meanwhile, the film’s handling of the addiction themes at its core often feels clumsy. Especially when compared to this year’s other addiction drama Beautiful Boy. Creating a film that lacks realism in the true darkness of addiction sitting at its heart. This vacuum in turn filled with loose stereotypes rather than hard-edged facts.
Director: Peter Hedges