Now I’m going to tell you right off the bat that I’m not the biggest fan of Julia Roberts and that (other than Erin Brockovich and Steel Magnolias) I think she is a pretty one dimensional actress. So when I say that I really enjoyed BEN IS BACK and I think that it is her best performance in quite a long time and it might even be my favorite performance of hers, you know that I’m telling the truth. Ben Is Back is what Beautiful Boy should have been. A cautionary tale about drugs that actually elicits emotions from the audience, emotions that are well written, earned, and acted. And that fact that everything takes place during Christmas was just the cherry on top.
Ben Is Back is about a son (played by the incredible Lucas Hedges) that comes home to see his family after spending months in a rehab center. His sister and stepfather think it is way too soon, his half siblings are just glad to see him, but his mother (played by Julia Roberts) is so thrilled to see him that she doesn’t start questioning things until other family members tell her she should. What is he doing home so soon? Does he have ulterior motives? What is going to happen if he relapses at the house? What happens if someone sees that is back that shouldn’t? All good questions. Instead of taking him back to rehab, they let him stay 24 hours during Christmas, going back to rehab the same time the next day. Will they regret their decision? What I like about the film that even though it takes place all in the span of about 24 hours, everything that happens feels natural, and it doesn’t take it to over the top places that any other schlocky film could take it. I very was surprised on how tame the whole movie was. I was expecting each twist and turn to evolve into something completely outlandish, and it didn’t. It subverted my expectations, and everything had more of a “well, I could actually see this happening in this situation” type feel, and that is what I appreciated most.
I also love how the film didn’t have all these revelations about Ben, and how most of his shady past is merely hinted at. Sure, there are a couple of revelations, but even those are still limited to broader information, with the specifics and really terrible shit left for the audience’s imagination. Sure, there might be a moment or two that are set up conveniently to reveal a little info on the origin of Ben’s drug habits, for example how Hedges and Roberts run into his old doctor in the mall, but those couple of things are easily forgivable with the other tidbits of information we get. The movie also does a great job of playing with Ben’s intentions during the whole film. You think he’s doing one thing, but just several minutes later the movie subverts that theory a bit, and it just keeps going back and forth. You will literally be guessing what happens and being wrong up until the very end.
The performances in this are amazing, everyone does a great job, but the standouts are obviously Roberts and Hedges, and any other year, Hedges would get an Oscar nomination. The movie is written and directed by Peter Hedges, who wrote films you may know such as both the novel and screenplay to What is Eating Gilbert Grape, co-writer on About A Boy, Dan in Real Life, and did some script doctoring on Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. I do like What Is Eating Gilbert Grape, but I think this is easily his finest work. And yes, he is Lucas Hedges father. Sometimes spouse or sibling or parental collaborations can easily crash and burn, but here it totally works. It seems like Peter let Lucas just do his thing, and the performance is that much better for it.
Anyway, I said earlier that this taking place during Christmas puts the cherry on top of the whole thing and it really does. The setting completely works here. If it is ever Christmas time and you happen to feel like a drug cautionary tale, but also want to watch a Christmas movie, this would easily fit the bill. The atmosphere of Christmas is all over the place, such as going to the mall with this mom, church festivities, and the cold and the snow play big parts in the film. The scene in the graveyard with Hedges and Roberts where she asks him where does he want her to bury him when he’s gone, the snow on the grave stones, the imagery is fantastic here and just elevates the whole scene. This review is getting too long, so as a Christmas present to you all, I’ll just end it by saying I really really liked this film, and it will probably be in my top 20 list when I finalize it soon.