For our earlier review of Ben is Back from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, click here.
Synopsis: Nineteen-year-old Ben Burns unexpectedly returns home to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve morning. Ben’s mother, Holly, is relieved and welcoming but wary of her son staying clean. Over a turbulent 24 hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother’s undying love for her son is tested as she does everything in her power to keep him safe. (Elevation Pictures)
Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, and Courtney B. Vance
Writer: Peter Hedges
Director: Peter Hedges
Rating: 14A (Canada)/R (United States)
Running Time: 103mins
After his star-making role in 2016’s Manchester by the Sea, Lucas Hedges has appeared in plenty of marquee films since (many of them releasing this year). His latest marquee film, Ben is Back will perhaps be the one to rival Manchester by the Sea. While an argument can be made that we have been over-saturated by Hedges, this film is still well worth the watch. Conversely, another argument could be made about how similar this film was to others released this year, such as Beautiful Boy or Boy Erased. While that isn’t necessarily this film’s fault, it looms above both of them.
Just like Beautiful Boy, this film also focuses on substance abuse and just like Boy Erased, it relied heavily on a mother-son relationship, and tackles both in a more compelling way than those films. The story here is of course about a young man named Ben (Hedges) who unexpectedly came back into his family’s lives on the morning of Christmas Eve. Their reaction to his return was mixed. Ben was suffering from substance abuse so they were understandably weary. The atmosphere was tense, however, Ben’s mom Holly (Roberts) was firmly on his side, wanting to believe in her son but she was still reserved.
Now in shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Ben’s return was not a happy one. Holly relished the opportunity to spend time with her son, however, he still suffered from his own demons and the consequences of his past actions. Those consequences would inevitably strike back against him and his family with a vengeance. Some have argued that the change in tone triggered by this moment ruins the film but this was definitely not the case here as this time was meant to bring Ben and Holly back together during what would be an emotionally-charged final third that would test their relationship, showing the lengths one mother would go to protect her son.
The whole story was definitely a roller coaster to watch from the beginning to the end. Part family addiction drama/part thriller, this unpredictable story goes to some unexpected places, always grounded by the strong and relatable family dynamic including the relationship between Ben and Holly. Ultimately, it would not have worked nearly as well as it did if not for the excellent performances of Roberts and Hedges as Holly and Ben respectively as well as their excellent chemistry. The mother-son dynamic was definitely there and they were the best part of the film although each had plenty of strong moments in their own right. Though Ben is a much different role than what we’re accustomed to from Hedges, he shines as a young man battling his own demons. Meanwhile, Roberts delivers one of her best performances in a very long time as Holly.
Overall, this was an excellent family addiction drama anchored by a compelling family dynamic, led by a strong script, adept direction, and most importantly some of the best performances of Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges’ careers as the titular Ben and his mother Holly.