However admirable, movies that center on people struggling with addiction tend to be more alike than unalike, especially when 12 Step programs rear their inevitable heads. So, I’m tempted to praise Peter Hedges’s taut Ben Is Back for taking a hard turn halfway through in a different direction, even if that direction is toward cheesy melodrama.
The odd thing is that the movie’s first half — the part that’s familiar from such recent addiction dramas as Beautiful Boy — is superbly effective. Not so much the opening, in which Hedges cuts back and forth between Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) radiating pride in her kids at a Christmas pageant (warm, golden colors) and her 19-year-old son, Ben (Lucas Hedges, son of Peter), in a hooded coat, traipsing miserably around the outside of the locked family house (chill, pale colors): That’s ham-handed. But what comes next catches you up. Holly pulls into the driveway with her kids, and there stands her oldest, on an unannounced leave from an inpatient program called Sober Living; and she leaps out of the car and runs to embrace him while, in the back seat, Ben’s sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), texts her stepfather in a panic. Ben isn’t supposed to be home. He’s troubled and he’s trouble.
I feel as if every time I turn into my driveway I might see Lucas Hedges, too. He’s everywhere. He had a small but vivid part in Jonah Hill’s teen drama Mid90s and gave a subtle, intelligent performance as a pastor’s son in a different sort of therapeutic program (“pray away the gay”) in the recent Boy Erased. He holds his own as the playwright’s pensive alter ego and narrator in the marvelous production of Kenneth Lonergan’s Waverly Place, now on Broadway. (See it above all for Elaine May.) But I’m still trying to get a fix on him. He doesn’t have the electricity of his Beautiful Boy counterpoint, the hotshot Timothée Chalamet. He stands back a little, as if still working things through. That unfinished quality worked well in Boy Erased (the character hadn’t formed an identity yet) and equally well, for different reasons, in Ben Is Back. In early scenes, Ben is rigid. His shoulders are locked and he has inmate eyes — they cast subtly around the room for threats or opportunities. Some of his readings sound unnatural, but is it Hedges or Ben who’s acting badly? Addicts tend to be bad actors. They lie reflexively, to other people and sometimes themselves. Our early uncertainty about him works — it makes the movie scarier. Newton’s Ivy gives us cues, looking at Ben as if she can’t trust a word he says, and so does Ben’s stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), whose role in life is now — whether he likes it or not, and it’s plain that he doesn’t — to be a check on his wife’s overflowing mother love.
Ben Is Back is an occasion for Roberts to go for it, and I can’t remember ever seeing her work this hard. She puts Holly’s love for Ben and her terror that he’ll relapse and die in every gesture, every glance, every breath. She’s so high-strung you’d almost buy it if Ben blamed her for driving him to drugs, but that’s not the movie’s point of view. (Holly is meant to be Super Mom and not Black Hawk Helicopter Mom.) She’s exhausting to watch (I wish that Hedges had taken her down a peg so we couldn’t see the acting), but she certainly gives the movie its gnawing sense of dread. Every time Holly walks ahead of Ben, you see her thinking she should turn around because he might — in the intervening two seconds — have disappeared out the window or jammed a needle into his arm. You can feel her stomach flipping over as she stands in the doorway of the bathroom with her back to her son as he pees into a cup. Will he produce a vial of untainted urine from his pants? How might the next minute lead to his death?
Unlike the makers of Beautiful Boy, Hedges is careful to give us some perspective on just how lucky Ben is to be white and from an affluent home. He does this chiefly by making Holly’s second husband black and having Neal say that if Ben had also been black, he would likely be dead. (Vance doesn’t get to show his full range, but he vividly evokes a conflicted soul.) Hedges puts us squarely in a world in which opioids dangle before people on all parts of the socioeconomic spectrum, promising a sense of well-being and delivering death-in-life and often just death. A scene in which Holly takes Ben to the mall for clothing and bumps into the boy’s former physician — now in the middle stages of dementia — is more than a little contrived; but in addition to giving Roberts a chance to hiss a death wish into the old man’s ear, it suggests a world of predatory medicating. Ben, meanwhile, feels responsible not just for the pain he has caused his family but the lives he played a role in destroying. (Was he prosecuted for dealing heroin? The film doesn’t say.)
Ben Is Back steers around one of the difficulties of making a realistic addiction movie, which is on display in Beautiful Boy: The addict comes home clean and then relapses … and then gets clean and relapses … and you think, Do we have to go through this again? But that’s what wears you down about addicts: You have to go through it again. And again. Hedges’s alternative is to plunge Ben and, consequently, Holly into a plot involving nasty dealers who learn that Ben’s back in town and kidnap a beloved family pet. (I know … how primitive can a movie get?) So you get mother and son driving around suburban New Jersey on Christmas Eve (lots of ambient holiday staples in the air) checking in on the places where Ben once used or dealt or someone he cared about died. It’s a good idea done well until the last 20 minutes, when the leap from a realistic addiction drama to a hair’s-breadth Hollywood rescue movie is too jarring to ignore.
It’s potent, though. No matter how hard you fight the last shot, it’s devastating. And anything that gets people — kids, parents, family pets — to watch movies that dramatize the opioid crisis is worth getting behind. Ben Is Back makes you dream of a world in which no one needs movies like Ben Is Back.