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Review: Ben is Back

December 14, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Ben (Lucas Hedges) is a young drug addict, who cuts out of rehab to return home on Christmas Eve. While his mother Holly (Julia Roberts) reluctantly agrees to let him stay for the night, despite disasters over the past two holidays, she goes into panic mode and tries desperately to help him stay clean.

Ben’s younger sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) clearly cares about her big brother, but she’s afraid to let it show, and is annoyed that he has come back unannounced. She seems scared that he will let them all down again, which makes her reluctant to get her hopes up that he has actually recovered.

Holly’s husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance), Ben’s stepfather, doesn’t want him around their two kids Liam (Jakari Fraser) and Lacey (Mia Fowler), and seems scared that Ben will relapse and they will have a repeat of the previous two years. When they return home from Christmas Eve mass to find that their house has been broken into and their beloved dog, Ponce, is missing, Ben is determined to spend the night making things right and settling old scores with his past dealers. Holly insists on coming with him on this journey, as they descend into the city’s underworld in search of the kidnapped pet.

This is the basic plot of Ben is Back, an intense and powerful film that really draws us into the world of this dysfunctional family over a 24 hour period, while allowing for moments of both disarming humour and gutting drama. The film is written and directed by Peter Hedges, who guides his son Lucas to an awards-worthy performance as a young addict, while crafting his own best film since the Thanksgiving dramedy Pieces of April fifteen years ago. That was another film about a dysfunctional family set around the holidays, that would coincidentally provide a great companion piece to this film.

Where Ben is Back differs is that there is a sort of “survive the night” element to the narrative that takes hold as it goes on, becoming more of a gritty crime drama in its second half. While some have criticized this change in tones partway through, I think both halves of the film actually work to compliment each other quite well. The first half mostly plays as an intimate family drama that lets us get to know and care about these characters, before the second half pulls out to reveal the full extent of the impact that Ben’s addiction has had – and continues to have – on other people, as Holly comes to realize that the web of those effected by it branches out to include other members of the community as well.

Hedges anchors the film with his sensitive and moving portrayal of a young man trying to hide the scars of his past from those closest to him by acting like everything is ok, while also secretly struggling with the fact that it’s really not, and living in constant fear that he might relapse and irreparably hurt those around him. Roberts matches him beat for beat, giving it her all as a mother trying desperately to save her son, while coming to terms with the fact that she might not be able to. It’s some of her best work.

It’s their powerful performances as mother and son that allow Ben is Back to really resonate, as the screenplay takes us on an emotional roller coaster ride that perfectly captures the feeling of being in the midst of a family crisis, while holding us in suspense right up until the final frames. The end result is an excellent father-son collaboration between Peter and Lucas Hedges, that sees them bringing out the best in each other, while also individually offering up some of their finest work yet.

Ben is Back is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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