'Ben Is Back': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Nerve-racking but not bleak or without humor.
12/7/2018

Peter Hedges ('Pieces of April') offers another uncomfortable holiday in an addiction drama starring Julia Roberts and the director's son, Lucas Hedges.

Fifteen years after his directing debut, Pieces of April, reminded TIFF attendees (and Sundancers before them) that family-reunion pictures can move us without leaving us guilty-feeling, Peter Hedges shows they can scare us as well with Ben Is Back, an addiction drama starring Julia Roberts and the helmer's son, Lucas Hedges. Another in a string of impressive turns by the young actor and one of the best things Roberts has ever done, the film is aware of the weight of its subject but loath to behave like an "important" film — focusing instead on the specificity of one sick young man and the family that loves and fears him in almost equal measure.

We meet Roberts' Holly Burns as she sits in church, watching three of her four kids rehearse for a Christmas pageant. It's the only day of the year they have to go to church, she reminds the two youngest (children of her second, current marriage, to Courtney B. Vance's Neal Beeby), so they'd better make the most of their time with God.

As they're returning home to finish Christmas Eve prep, there's an unexpected guest on the doorstep: Ben (Hedges), who has been in a sober-living facility and was not supposed to leave. While a stunned-silent Holly rushes to embrace him, his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) angrily calls to tell her stepfather a storm has blown into town.

The following scenes suggest an intimate knowledge of families who've been burned by a black sheep and deal with it differently. Mom, beaming, talks like things are normal, but quietly hides her pills and jewelry; Ivy scowlingly issues unnecessary reminders of how badly Ben's previous visits home have gone. When Neal gets home, he has the involvement-at-a-remove of a late addition to the family: "I'm concerned," he announces. There are too many triggers in this house for an addict who has been clean only 77 days. But Ben, trying to talk anxieties away, reassures everyone that his sponsor OK'd the trip. After some debate, Holly puts Neal's concerns into action: Ben will be allowed to stay a single day before going back to rehab, he'll never leave her sight, and he won't even be allowed to kick off his boots before he passes a drug test she administers. (Roberts' "you are mine, all mine" is one part maternal adoration, one part drill sergeant.) After some pee-test comic relief, the reunion lightens up.

But with Ben home, every bit of holiday housework is fraught — from digging childhood tree ornaments out of the attic (it's where he used to hide drugs) to a trip to the mall for last-minute presents, where he bumps into old acquaintances. (And where a strange encounter allows Holly, out of Ben's hearing, to spit venom at the source of his addiction.) Ben makes a phone call we don't hear, he gets the stink-eye from a seedy character and soon he's so rattled he needs to go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Even in this presumably safe place, Holly tags along, sitting behind him as he is winningly honest about his recovery.

But, of course, we don't know how honest he's being. The screenplay and Hedges' performance give Ben the narcissism of a recovering addict ("Everything is my fault") but no self-pity, and we can't tell if his therapy-talk is 100 percent sincere or if it hides rationalizations for risky behavior. It's pretty clear Ben isn't sure, either. And when a break-in at the house sends Ben and Holly off on an all-night mission to rescue the family's kidnapped dog, that swamp of intention, impulse and deception (inward- and outward-directed) takes the film over.

Even as their search begins, the pic subtly shows just what a minefield a hometown can be for someone who became an addict there. Familiar houses that mean nothing to Holly hold volumes of trauma for Ben; Roberts' eyes are those of someone who thought she'd seen life's bottom and realizes now how much further things can go. As her son takes her to increasingly shady places, trying to learn which of his old associates has the dog, her protective anger rises. Surely this goose chase has an ulterior motive. When he takes the car and leaves her stranded, she knows she was right.

In an affecting encounter with a woman (Rachel Bay Jones) who lost a daughter to the darkest chapter in Ben's life, Holly borrows a car to continue her search, trying to find Ben before he's gone for good. The film offers the kind of desperate detective work real parents, not Liam Neeson characters, are doing every day in this country, and Roberts is, in her way, as fierce an embodiment of maternal single-mindedness as Hedges' last big-screen mother, played by Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. To the elder Hedges' credit, although a couple of earlier sequences have signaled their twists ahead of time, it's hard to know where this dark night is going to go.

Production company: Color Force
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Alexandra Park, Mia Fowler, Jakari Fraser
Director-screenwriter: Peter Hedges
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Teddy Schwarzman, Peter Hedges
Executive producers: Daniel Steinman, Ben Stillman, Jane Evans, Mickey Liddell
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Ford Wheeler
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Editor: Ian Blume
Composer: Dickon Hinchliffe
Casting director: Bernard Tesley
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)

103 minutes