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Ben is Back

Posted January 1, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

For those just tuning in, I did a double-feature review about a month ago. There was Beautiful Boy, a movie in which a young man grapples with drug addiction; and there was Boy Erased, a movie starring Lucas Hedges. So here’s the hat trick: Ben is Back, in which Lucas Hedges stars as a young man grappling with drug addiction (written/produced/directed by his father, Peter Hedges).

(Side note: Reportedly, it was costar Julia Roberts — and not the director — who first insisted on bringing the younger Hedges on board.)

To be entirely fair, there are some crucial differences between Ben is Back and Beautiful Boy. To start with, Boy was based on a true story while Ben is purely fictional. Additionally, the biopic unfolded over two decades while the fictional story takes place within a single Christmas Eve. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of space for the tedious “rehab, relapse, repeat” cycle to take place in that amount of time, as Boy put us through umpteen times.

Instead, this movie puts a much greater focus on the theme of atonement. Ben (that’s Hedges’ character, obviously) used to be a dealer as well as an addict, and he had to do a lot of awful shit with a lot of shady people to keep the supply moving. At least one person is dead because of him, and his family once found him half-dead from an OD. He’s got unfinished business with a lot of dangerous lunatics all over upstate New York, not to mention his own family, a few grieving families, the kids he turned into drug addicts, and his own deep-seated traumas. That’s a lot of temptation to relapse, and it’s a lot to answer for, but nobody ever solved their problems by running away from them.

And anyway, it’s Christmas. What better time to reunite with loved ones and make amends?

Additionally, this movie throws a few stones at Big Pharma in a way that Beautiful Boy never did. For example, the back half of the movie involves a kind of nasal spray for use in reviving addicts who’ve overdosed. (Possibly some form of butorphanol.) Trouble is, this particular kit is expired, and the only pharmacy open on Christmas Eve doesn’t carry any replacements. They don’t want to encourage any “irresponsible behavior”, you see. Yet this exact same pharmacy has no problem issuing syringes, painkillers, and other materials used for the exact same “irresponsible behavior” that makes the nasal spray fucking necessary!

Another great example comes earlier on, when Ben’s mother (that’s Holly, played by Julia Roberts) meets a retired old doctor (played by Jack Davidson). In fact, this is the same doctor who prescribed painkillers to Ben, swearing up and down that they wouldn’t be addictive until Ben did in fact get addicted. Looking back at the movie, thinking about not only Ben’s misfortunes but all the pain and suffering and deaths that came about because Ben got addicted and started dealing, all because of one mistake made by a senile doctor two weeks from retirement… yikes.

This brings me to the most crucial distinction between Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back: The distinction between Steve Carell and Julia Roberts. This obviously makes a world of difference, as Roberts is more at home with such hefty dramatic material than Carell could ever hope to be. But more than that, changing the dynamic from father/son to mother/son changes everything. Especially when the mother in question is such an overprotective busybody as Holly is.

Holly has to know everything about what Ben is doing and who he’s meeting with, and she has to be everywhere he is. To be fair, a lot of that comes from the fact that he’s a recovering drug addict who can only be allowed so much trust. But as the plot unfolds and Holly goes deeper and deeper into Ben’s sordid past, we see a repeating cycle in which Ben insists that Holly is in over her head, she barges on anyway, and Ben gets proven tragically right.

At this point, it becomes clear that this isn’t about helping Ben through his drug addiction so much as it’s about holding Ben so tightly that Holly won’t ever let go of him again. Even as she risks pushing away her son for trying to hold on too tightly. She doesn’t want to be told that she can’t be there for her son, and she is fundamentally incapable of accepting the slightest possibility that she cannot help him with anything. As a direct result, she keeps digging herself into a progressively deeper hole, lying to her family, herself, and pretty much everyone else as she tries (possibly in vain) to protect Ben from the world. This is powerful stuff, especially in the hands of two seasoned pros like Roberts and Hedges.

(Side note: Seriously, Hedges only broke out two years ago, and he’s already got enough talent and cred to hold the screen with the best in the business. What a crazy career this kid has had so far.)

Then we’ve got the supporting cast. Courtney B. Vance plays Ben’s stepfather, and he’s… well, as Ben so astutely puts it, he’s kind of a dick. Sure, Holly makes it clear that Neal is the only reason why they can afford Ben’s rehab, and it’s not like Neal’s fears are completely unfounded with regards to the family’s safety around him — even Ben freely admits to that. But there’s being reasonable, and then there’s directly blaming Ben — to his face, point-blank, in plain and simple terms that leave zero room for interpretation — for everything bad that happens to the family.

Moreover, there’s a point early on when Neal states that if Ben was a young black man, he’d be dead or in jail by now. On it’s surface, that’s a compelling point about institutional racism. But looking back over the whole movie, I have to wonder if Neal was lashing out at Ben out of spite because the white boy ruined so many lives and only got off with a few months of rehab. I mean, it’s not like Neal doesn’t have enough reason as it is to be afraid for his children or upset with the kid who OD’d in his house, to say nothing of the financial strain from rehab — do we really need to make race a factor on top of all that? Even so, for whatever reason, there is absolutely no doubt that this man hates his stepson, and I’m not sure that was the right direction to go.

Then we have Kathryn Newton, here playing Ben’s sister. (Coincidentally another Lady Bird alum who previously played Lucas Hedges’ sister in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.) The camera loves her, to be sure, though I was not impressed with the “angelic” singing voice the filmmakers kept trying to sell me. That aside, the big problem I have with Ivy is that she starts out squarely on Neal’s side, insisting that giving Ben any kind of quarter for any length of time is a bad idea. But then… something happens and she softens her view… somehow.

I’m not trying to avoid spoilers or anything, I genuinely don’t know what she thinks of Ben at the end of the movie or what could’ve happened to change her mind at any point in between. I realize that she’s only a supporting character and the truncated time span only allows so much room for development, but her arc in here was pretty clumsy for how active she is in the plot. Oh, and speaking of which, her big contribution in the third act is to serve as a glorified GPS tracker. Seriously.

In a movie that’s otherwise nicely authentic and heartbreaking, it’s painfully obvious when the storytelling starts to break down in the back half. Too many characters are reduced to mere plot devices, and too many criminals act more like stereotypes than actual human beings. Also, while it’s nice that the plot gives Ben and Holly a reason to go chasing down the darker alleyways and more dangerous figures in Ben’s past, the story point that causes the plot turn is right on the cusp of “too flimsy and stupid to be anything a criminal kingpin would actually do.”

Ultimately, it’s the two lead performances that make Ben is Back worth seeing. Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges are both on fire here, portraying a beautifully broken mother/son relationship. It also helps that the film explores the issue of drug addiction in some bold ways, even if the criminal element seems more Hollywood than authentic.

While the storytelling stumbles in the back half, the supporting players are weak, and I don’t expect this will get a lot of awards love against the stiff competition, I’d still recommend giving it a look when you can.

Shoplifters

Posted January 1, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

This is gonna be a tough one, folks. At the best of times, I find that foreign films are tough to discuss, due to differing cultural norms, national histories, filmmaking protocols, etc. But what’s even more difficult to talk about is a movie in which all the best parts and most relevant details are directly related to plot spoilers. With all of that said, I’m going to ask that you take this review with a massive grain of salt. Please read with the understanding that everything I’m going to tell you about the basic premise is a lie that will eventually be exposed by the end of the film. Moreover, please watch this movie as cold as you possibly can, so you can partake in the joy of following these characters through each individual and unpredictable scene of their lives.

With all of that established, let’s get started.

Shoplifters tells the story of a family living in a run-down shack somewhere in urban Japan. The patriarch (Osamu, played by Lily Franky) is a day laborer, and the matriarch (Nobuyo, played by Sakura Ando) is a laundress. There’s also the grandmother (Hatsue, played by Kirin Kiki), who regularly collects the pension from her deceased husband. Then we have Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a granddaughter to Hatsue from another marriage — it’s a long story. Aki works as… um… well, she’s a sex worker of some kind, it looks like a Japanese thing.

Rounding out the family is Shota (Kairi Jo), a boy in his early teens. He’s the youngest in the family, and just beginning the process of figuring out who he is and whether he’s really okay with the lifestyle he’s been raised in. See, Shota and Osamu regularly go out shoplifting to steal the food and groceries that they badly need but can’t afford.

As a reminder, this is a family with four incomes, yet they’re still living in the gutters and resorting to petty theft. That’s a pretty strong clue there’s something not right here.

Suffice to say that even if serial shoplifting was their only crime, they’d have enough reason to stay off the grid and avoid unwanted attention. And that’s before they meet Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl bearing all the classic signs of abuse. Our main characters take her in, and Yuri’s birth parents don’t even file a missing persons report… until the cops find out that she’s missing and Yuri’s face is all over the news. So if Yuri stays missing, it looks like a murder, and if she resurfaces, it looks like a kidnapping.

To get the obvious comparison out of the way, this movie does have a superficial resemblance to such recent films as Captain Fantastic, The Glass Castle, Leave No Trace, etc. Easily the most important similarity is the open question of what will happen to the kids. What kind of home is being provided for them, and what kind of life will they be ready for when they grow into adults? What effect could such a defiantly unorthodox upbringing have on a developing child?

That said, there’s a very important difference in that we always know precisely why the parent figures in those other films raised their families as they did. Captain and Glass Castle were both very explicitly about independence borne of arrogance, while Trace was about the lasting damage of PTSD. With the Shoplifters… well, figuring out the whys and wherefores is a central part of the dramatic tension. While it’s relevant to the intrigue and the character motivations, it’s not any kind of crucial theme or story point until the film is practically over.

Suffice to say that the film’s most prominent theme is about the water of the womb versus the blood of the covenant. It’s all about the question of what really defines a family, and whether it’s truly a matter of choice. Between the strangers who provide a loving home and the blood relatives who couldn’t care less, where is the true family?

The plot is so loosely structured that it barely deserves to be called as such, but there’s still a lot to keep the film compelling. A significant part of that is in the subtle clues and hints, all the little things so slightly off-kilter that it’s easy to brush them off until they finally come to a head at the end. There’s this looming sense of dread hanging over the entire film, with the knowledge that this whole arrangement is too fragile to last. All it takes is for somebody to get caught, somebody to get sick or injured, somebody to recognize Yuri… there are so many ways that this could fall apart, we’re left waiting to see which way it’s going to break. As exciting as it is to wait for the big revelation that comes when the whole facade is undone, it’s also kind of heartbreaking because the facade is so lovely.

Easily the single biggest reason to see this movie is because the characters — as individuals and as a family unit — are so compelling. They’re so offbeat that I found great entertainment in learning more about their peculiar lifestyle and philosophy. Even in the ways they argue and show affection, it’s all so familiar and yet so unique. This family has built something so beautiful and truly special, that it’s genuinely heartwarming to see how it all works, even as we know it must eventually end and may be built on a rotten foundation. Major kudos to the cast for making that work.

Oh, and of course we get a bit of lip service toward the theme of socioeconomic inequality, though it’s admittedly done in a subtle and unique way here. Additionally, the multigenerational cast lends itself to discussions about growing older. But the bizarre and unorthodox nature of this cast — given Aki’s profession as a call girl, Hatsue’s children and stepchildren, the relationship between Shoto and his new baby “sister”, etc. — lends itself to all manner of discussions about interpersonal connection and all the unorthodox ways in which we find and nurture the company we so badly need.

I can certainly see why Shoplifters has been getting so much end-of-year buzz. The characters are endearing, the performances are compelling, the script is full of surprises, and the central themes of human connection are expressed in creative and heartfelt ways. The pacing tends to drag, due to the lack of a conventional plot, but I honestly didn’t mind spending so much time with these characters.

Definitely check this one out.