BEN IS BACK review by Mark Walters – Julia Roberts desperately tries to save her son

BEN IS BACK review by Mark Walters – Julia Roberts desperately tries to save her son

Lucas Hedges must have one hell of an agent, as he’s in three of the year end’s most talked about films – mid90s, BOY ERASED and BEN IS BACK. The last of those puts his alongside megastar Julia Roberts, and under the lens of his father, director Peter Hedges (DAN IN REAL LIFE, THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN). It deals with the lasting effects of substance abuse, how it’s dealt with by the family left behind, and the question of whether or not someone can ever truly and effectively get clean.

Holly Burns (Roberts) is mother raising two young kids from her second marriage, as he remaining first marriage child Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is almost at the age of graduation. Things are fine until her oldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges) returns home unexpectedly from rehab, and it’s clear that the family knows this isn’t a good thing… though Holly, out of her undying love for her son, holds out hope that maybe this time things will be okay. Ivy and Holly’s husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) fear this Ben isn’t strong enough to keep himself out of trouble, and some of the circles he used to run in may see his return as an opportunity. As Ben attempts to re-acclimate to home life, he finds temptation everywhere, including his old hiding spots for drugs within the house. Soon his reemergence catches the attention of a former dealer, and this leads to the family dog being stolen. Now Ben must reluctantly get mixed up in his old ways one last time to fix things, only this time mom isn’t letting him out of her sight.

BEN IS BACK feels like a small part of a much bigger story, throwing us into the lives of a family who has obviously been through a tremendous amount of stress, and likely over the course of many years. But the film opens with Ben returning home in a very unexpected way, and ends even more abruptly, which may not sit well with most audiences. The movie shines thanks to the stellar performances from both Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, who play the difficult mother and son relationship beautifully well. Any parent will likely appreciate the earnest way Holly wants to take her son back in, to the point of ignoring the obvious concerns based on his past behavior. Even when her daughter and husband warn her about how bad this return could be, she exudes positivity if for no other reason than wanting him to be back in her arms. And when things start to unravel, you are devastated for her, even if you’re not surprised by it. Hedges is also great as the troubled Ben, who is clearly not back to normal, but seems genuine in his desire to get clean. This is a fine balance in finding the qualities to make the character of Ben likable and easy to relate to, while also keeping that undertone of doom and discord. This is a personality we need to find endearing, but also be afraid for and of, and Hedges plays it perfectly.

The basic story of BEN IS BACK is fairly simple, and director Peter Hedges keeps it interesting by keeping us in the middle of the thoughts and feelings of the leads, finding simple moments like Ben in church, breaking down as the congregation around him sings – or one of my favorite moments where he panics while exploring the attic with his sister, as he recalls an old hiding place up there where he used to keep drugs… and he’s worried some may still be there. There is a strong connection and intimate feel between the audience and these leads, and it finds itself right from the start. But the narrative falls short of potential greatness with what becomes a rather basic recovery mission, and an ending that feels rather incomplete. Again, it feels like there’s more story here that we’re not getting, and we definitely could have used more of a wrap up when it was all said and done. All in all an exhibition of really solid performances, and not a bad movie, just one that’s not very filling.

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.