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Ben is Back

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.

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