‘Ben is back’ review: Mother on a mission

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges bring out the utter hopelessness and frustrations of drug addiction

The trauma of drug addiction looms large over the Burns family on Christmas Eve. On the outside, as the film begins, they are a regular (if you don’t count interracial as an exception) church-going family but on the inside, they are grappling with an agonising past. The return of Ben (Lucas Hedges) from rehab, if only for a day, is not just the visit of an addict family member but also of fear, concern, anxiety and suspicion that the family had collectively managed to contain. As emotional as Holly (Julia Roberts) is to see her son for Christmas, she also hides all possible triggers of a relapse. The family’s suspicion and constant examination of Ben’s every move hint at the harrowing days gone by but Peter Hedges’ film seldom dives into the past beyond a few verbal recollections. The focus rests on the uncertainty of change in an addict and a mother’s unrelenting optimism and efforts towards it, when everyone else around her has given up, including her son.

Ben Is Back
  • Director: Peter Hedges
  • Cast: Lucas Hedges, Julia Roberts, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton
  • Story line: Ben comes home uninvited from drug addiction rehab for a day

Ben is Back shows that it takes a village to raise a child, and when he goes astray there is no one person who can fix it. Without being overtly explanatory, the film manages to be an incisive study of an addict and his family in the first half but in the second, melodrama takes over. It’s then that the film pushes emotional buttons through convenient situations, often projecting images that one would typically associate with addicts, without challenging prejudices and preconceived ideas. The film misses out on the crucial opportunity to explore the socio-economic complexities -- a financially unstable white woman with two kids marrying a well-heeled middle-class black man -- that form the background of this addiction story. All the effort appears to be towards creating situations, both real and exaggerated, that test the threshold of a mother. As a result, Roberts is handed over a character that oscillates between being a believably flawed mother and an ideal parent. But the actor is measured and maintains an even tone, without succumbing to the film’s manipulations. For the mother of an addict, displaying her true feelings is a luxury, and Roberts understands that, even when the film doesn’t.

For Lucas, it surely appears to be an advantage when you have your father wear the director’s hat. The actor is given generous amounts of close-ups to bring out the angst of a damaged and conflicted teenager, which he effortlessly executes. Alongside the two remarkable performances, the filmmaker’s choice of setting is what saves the film from being another forgettable drama on addiction. The festival visuals of Christmas are contradicted with the gloom and darkness that engulf Ben and his mother. Despite releasing a couple of weeks before Christmas, the freezing, snowy images are more melancholic than celebratory. They aid in depicting the isolation of the characters when the world around is festive but there is no Christmas miracle in sight for the mother-son duo. Suffering can be painfully solitary, therefore the significance of Ben is Back lies in comforting parents that as incorrigible as their prodigal child may be, they are not the only ones battling it out.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 9:31:17 AM |

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