Enlightening but Heartbreaking
This country’s opioid crisis is hitting Hollywood in a big way of late as a couple of new films dealing with opioid addiction have been released in cinemas recently. It is sad -- and a bit ironic -- that a devastating societal meltdown has become such lucrative fodder for the industry’s creative minds. But it has. Both Beautiful Boy, based on Felix Van Groeningen’s memoir, and more recently, Ben is Back, starring Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts, take on the subject with truly heartbreaking results. And subsequently, both are in the discussion of the year’s best films.
Both films tell the story of a young boy dealing with drug addiction and the process of learning to accept the unconditional support of a loving family member. And both paint a hauntingly vivid portrait of how the dilemma spreads beyond the addicted and into the lives of friends, family, and loved ones.
But Ben is Back differs a bit in that it looks at the aftermath of the addiction and gives us an expertly-depicted but often hard-to-watch picture of the recovery process and just how precarious sobriety is. There’s also a much-appreciated genre swap at the halfway point which tips over into crime drama and gives us an enlightening look at just how many lives are affected by the opioid crisis. The film is tough, it is heartbreaking, and it is truly emotionally devastating. And while Ben is Back isn’t necessarily what most would consider enjoyable entertainment, it is something everyone needs to see.
Another difference is that the film’s narrative is a relatively condensed one unfurls itself over the brief course of a 24-hour period as Ben (Hedges) unexpectedly shows up at home on Christmas Eve while on a short leave from his stint at a sober living facility. He tells his mom Holly (Roberts), sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and step-dad Neal (Courtney B. Vance) that his sponsor suggested it was a good idea for him to spend time at home over Christmas. Aww, how sweet, right? Well, it is anything but a simple family visit for the holidays as Ben’s checkered past is revealed in a slow burn of heartache and despair.
At first, things seem to be working out. Ben interacts with his step-siblings, performs chores around the house, and goes on a shopping trip with his mother. And Holly, driven by the belief that her son has finally beaten his inner demons, looks forward to a pleasant visit from her natural son. However, that feeling of comfort gets continually disrupted by director Peter Hedges who keeps us on our toes with the occasional hint that Ben’s sobriety is precarious at best. Additionally, our fears are heightened by Dickon Hinchliffe’s unsettling musical score that enhances the tension.
Concern is also expressed by Neal and Ivy, who worry that certain triggers from home might be too much for Ben to handle. And that eventually becomes the case. His sudden reemergence in the community gets the attention of some shady characters from his past who might be involved in the recent break-in and theft of the family dog. Ben, accompanied by his exasperated mom, sets out to confront anyone who may still hold a grudge.
Though a rather simply constructed story, this film’s emotions are big, brave, and bold with the heady issues it takes on. And while Hedges -- working from his own script -- never hints at solutions to the problems he addresses, he knows where the bodies are buried and is never afraid to call out those responsible. And, as it turns out, many are responsible. Additionally, Hedges’ bleak, wintry small town setting looks as raw and unpolished as his story’s subject matter.
None of this would work without strong performances by everyone involved. Roberts and Hedges are clearly all in, and their turns here will undoubtedly keep them both in the end-of-year discussion. Particularly of note is Hedges, whose back-to-back turns in Boy Erased and now this film (even Mid 90s) are truly phenomenal and show that the kid is here to stay. It is a tough sell to drum up sympathy for a lying, deceiving drug addict, but we are buying everything he is selling.
Ben is Back is certainly not a fun film. Nor is it one you’ll necessarily want to visit more than once. It will probably even break your heart more than once. But it is a must-see film that features two of the year’s strongest performances in a devastatingly raw exploration of the seedy underbelly of drugs, crime, rehabilitation, and acceptance.
(Released by Black Bear Pictures and rated “R” for language throughout and some drug use.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.