In much the same way that Boy Erased curiously paralleled The Miseducation of Cameron Post months later, Ben is Back sees arthouse starlet Lucas Hedges lead a belated companion piece to Felix van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy. Both features concern the strain of parental connection in the face of a crippling drug addiction. Whereas the latter told the tale of father and son, the former offers the perspective of a mother. It’s moving stuff, very well directed and performed with outstanding nuance by a tremendous cast.
At the film’s beating heart is a typically remarkable Julia Roberts. Given worthy material, Roberts has always excelled and so it is here in a role that demands she navigate the terse line between ebullient joy and utter heartbreak. She plays twice married mother of four Holly, a woman of warm heart and Christian values. Two of her brood are mere tots, innocent mirrors of their elder step-siblings: angelic chorister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and her deeply troubled opposite Ben (Lucas Hedges). When Ben returns home from rehab on Christmas Eve, just seventy-seven days clean, Holly is thrilled. Her wide smile emits the absolute hope that has driven her through years of torment and masks the hurt within. He seems better – ‘he’s got the sparkle back’ – and more committed to his future than ever before. It’s her eyes, however, that betray her. Does she really believe all will be well? There’s despair there and conflict too, not to mention the desperation to believe the reassurance she offers to others: ‘This time will be different. You’ll see, it will.’ What hurts is that we know where this is going, where this must go for the sake of dramatic impact.
Particularly admirable throughout the film is the skill with which writer-director Peter Hedges – Lucas’ own father – conveys the rhythms of a wrought family unit. On Ben’s return, Ivy’s skepticism bitterly conveys a feeling for the unspoken bigger picture, outwit the confines of the film’s hundred minutes, while her thawing has a charming honesty to it. Holly’s response to the looming threat of potential triggers barring her son from recovery – to enforce authoritarian control upon his every move – is painfully believable, as is the lament of a fellow mother – whose daughter was taken by her addiction – that ‘we can’t save them’. On the outskirts, Courtney B. Vance is a kindly balance as Neil, the caring but excluded step-father, and Hedges does well to establish a strong atmosphere of community through his wide and subtle supporting ensemble. Later developments bring a handful of perhaps less three dimensional characters – in the form of Ben’s ever present former drug dealers – but Hedges’ emotional roots are too well grounded by this stage for the shift to overly unsettle.
Filmed either side of Christmas 2017, Stuart Dryburgh casts the film in an appropriately bleak, mid-winter palette – all snow and graveyards – with only brief smatterings of respite offered by golden hued interiors. Hedges opts primarily for a handheld camera in filming, smartly gifting his action an aesthetic of soft chaos. In one instance, footage is blended with a segment of smartphone home cinema and the effect is a heightened sense of intimacy between the viewer and those on screen. In contrast to the gentle motion of most scenes throughout the film, Hedges adroitly shoots an addicts’ meeting with a steadied hand, doing well to frame the stabilising effect of communal recovery. Brief that the sequence might be, it offers a powerful reminder that there is no single demographic untouched by addiction and no one type of individual who succumbs.
Ben is Back is perhaps not so bold and ambitious as Beautiful Boy in its cinematic approach and yet it is the more empathetically affecting. As Ben, Hedges proves himself once again adept at carrying the burden of angst. In one particularly emotional scene, his insular reduction to tears echoes the breakdown that propelled him to fame back in Manchester by the Sea and proves no less upsetting. Ultimately, however, this is Roberts’ show. Hers is a performance overflowing with a naturalism one would expect to have been long since lost in stardom. Somehow, she’s still got it.