Ben Is Back movie review: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges are riveting in this moving mother-son drama

Rohini Nair

Dec 14, 2018 16:02:53 IST


O what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.

For a film that deals with a devastating subject like addiction, Ben Is Back — the new Julia Roberts film — plays it surprisingly low key. Sure, there's drama, but it's all so understated that it becomes even more impactful.

Roberts plays Holly, a fiercely protective mom of four, whose oldest — 19-year-old Ben (Lucas Hedges) — is back home on a surprise visit for Christmas. Happy family reunion? Not quite. Ben's siblings are excited to see him, as is Holly, but her second husband Neal (Ben's step-dad, played by Courtney B Vance) not so much. You see, Ben has been a drug addict for several years, and the family has been put through the wringer thanks to his habit, and subsequent attempts at kicking it. Ben has been in rehab, clean for 77 days — the longest he's spent without 'using’ since the time he started in his early teens.

Neal and Holly agree to let Ben stay for a day, and bring Christmas in with the family. Holly lays down a strict set of rules: Ben will be in her sight constantly during the next 24 hours, no locked doors, no funny business. Ben promises to abide by them. What could go wrong?

Ben Is Back spends the next couple of hours showing just that. What starts as an intimate family get-together, with visits to the mall and church, soon takes a most un-Christmassy turn.

 Ben Is Back movie review: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges are riveting in this moving mother-son drama

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges in a still from Ben Is Back

There's a voyeuristic framing to the way writer-director Peter Hedges’ story unravels. The visuals that unfold on screen are super zoomed in — on the view through the windshield as Ben and Holly drive down snowy roads, on Holly's face (and Ben's) in the rear-view mirror of the car, and on the play of emotions across their faces as they experience a particularly wrenching moment. It's almost as though you're in the backseat with them, or standing next to them in the same room. You're also fed snatches of information at a time and left to guess at the horror of the full picture: There's what Ben and Holly both know; there's what Ben knows but Holly doesn't (and we find out at the very moment she does); and there's what she (and by extension we) won't ever find out.

Most of this information is about the depths to which Ben was driven in the course of his addiction, and how he got there. There are moments when Holly, who has had a ringside view of Ben's struggles and thinks she has seen it all, gets a glimpse of what her son has done in the quest for his next hit — the destruction he's left in his wake, and the damage inflicted on him as well — and she is nearly shattered by the revelation, before pulling herself together. As moms always do. As moms always must.

Ben Is Back could be the portrait of an addict. But even more so, it depicts with a stark and painful honesty, the psyche of a mother. Holly's 'rules’ for Ben's visit, and what she uncovers of his life and experiences, shows just how much parents — no matter how close an eye they think they're keeping on their children and their safety — are in the dark about what their children get up to, of the things they visit on others, and the things that are visited upon them. It's every parent's nightmare, really. When children set out to deceive — and they do, frequently — they can do so with an ease that would befuddle their parents if they ever got around to discovering all their machinations.

Ben's deceptions are all the worse because they come from the desperation and deviousness of his addiction. But Holly sees beyond them, to the boy he was and the boy he could be. Even when he lies and cheats and lets her down, she's right by his side, fighting for him. As moms always do. As moms always must.

Set over the course of 24 hours, Ben is Back sets a brisk pace; we're witnesses to this family's grief, but only for so long. In that sense it avoids being exploitative, and the time frame imparts a short story-like feel to the narrative (as opposed to, say, a full-fledged novel). I wish I could say more about this film, but it would take away from the a-ha moments when you get clues that help you figure out the jigsaw puzzle that is Ben and Holly's lives.

Instead, let's look at the performances: Lucas Hedges (who is the director's son) is perfect as Ben. Doting big brother, prodigal son, addict on the verge of a relapse, tough dealer — Hedges Jr brings together all of these aspects of Ben, a complex human being, and really, just a frightened teenager. There's a scene where he sits in church on Christmas Eve and listens to his sister sing in the choir, and breaks down that's among the most powerful and moving performances I've recently seen. His performance makes you invested in Ben and his future, makes you hope against hope — all evidence and signs to the contrary — that he'll pull through. That this time he'll get clean.

As for Julia Roberts, her Holly starts out sassy and tough, which is nothing we haven't seen the actress do before. But as we see Holly come apart — a mother wanting only to save her son and pull him back from the brink of an abyss that has no end (but one) — Roberts becomes spellbinding. There's a real edge to her panic and bereavement that will bring you nearly to tears.

Watch Ben Is Back. There is no grandiose cinematography or gimmicky storytelling or grandstanding. It is a stripped down story; a story about how little we know the ones we love, about how much we love them anyway, and the lengths to which we're willing to go to keep them safe.

Watch the trailer for Ben Is Back here:

Updated Date: Dec 14, 2018 16:10:00 IST