Ben is Back is one of those films that break rules and still entertains. Entertain is too mild a word for this film. It grabs you and shakes you and doesn’t let go for 103 minutes.
The film was a featured event – The Centerpiece Film – at the Austin Film Festival, which ran October 24 – November 1. Besides showing over 180 films, the festival brings screenwriters and filmmakers together to celebrate the role of the screenplay in filmmaking and discuss the considerable creative possibilities involved in writing for film and television
Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges star in Ben is Back, a story that is both timeless and topical. The timeless aspect is a story about a mother’s love for her son. The topical aspect arises because that love is tested by her son’s immersion in the opioid epidemic.
The story follows a life-and-death critical 24-hours with recovering drug addict Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges). Ben unexpectedly comes home for Christmas from his detox program. Ben’s mom, played by Roberts is overjoyed to see him, His younger sister, who may have insights his mom doesn’t, less so. Robert’s character is ecstatic when Ben tells her he is staying clean. As he reappears in the community, however, his past returns to haunt and threaten him. His mom does everything in her power to keep him out of trouble.
The film’s cast is amazing.
I owe Julia Roberts (Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Erin Brockovich, 2000) an apology. I saw her in Steel Magnolias, Pretty Woman, and Mary Riley. Then for no good reason, nothing she’s done in this century showed up on my radar. Maybe I should apologize to myself because if her subsequent work was anywhere as good as what she did in Ben is Back, I have missed out on some amazing acting. Julia Roberts gives a career-defining performance in Ben is Back.
A surprising moment and bright spot for Julia Roberts’ character occurs when she confronts the doctor whom she blames for getting Ben hooked. This makes one of the themes of the film explicit, that the opioid crisis may be economically driven.
Lucas Hedges as Ben plays an intense teen with secrets and regrets. A great supporting job is done by Kathryn Newton as Ben’s younger sister. She doesn’t believe that Ben is telling the truth. This is the third film Hodges and Newton have collaborated on. Their other co-starring appearances were in Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The film was written and directed by Peter Hedges. Hedges made his feature-film debut with Pieces Of April in 2003, and was recognized that year by Variety as one of its “10 Directors to Watch.” Subsequently, Hedges-directed films included Dan In Real Life and The Odd Life Of Timothy Green. Ben Is Back continues in his personal genre of exploring the life of a person in emotional and moral crisis.
One of the rules of filmmaking is that the story is supposed to be a “hero’s journey.” Hedges breaks this rule, providing us instead with in-depth portraits – character studies – of his two main characters. This is also the approach taken in another Austin Film Festival favorite, Vox Lux. This may be a trend.
I haven’t cried at a film since my mom took me to see Old Yeller. Twice, I got close to tearing up during Ben is Back. This is a film worth going out of your way to see, both for its inherent dramatic impact and for a look into the drug crisis facing America.
You can watch the trailer below