Ben Is Back
Ben Is Back is the latest film to tackle the losing battle this country is waging with the opioid crisis. However, rather than showing the effects of addiction and the long road to recovery, it instead focuses on the criminal element’s involvement over the course of a single day.
When we first see Ben (Lucas Hedges), he’s trying to get into his family’s house, though no one is home. His mom (Julia Roberts), two young half-siblings, and teenage sister are on their way back from Christmas pageant rehearsals. When they spot Ben in the driveway, nearly every person in the station wagon has a different reaction to his reappearance. Mom is ecstatic. Sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is disappointed and upset. The two youngsters seem to be happy enough, but don’t share their mom’s bewilderment. And how could they? They don’t know that Ben was not supposed to leave his rehab facility, under any circumstances.
When his step-dad (Courtney B. Vance) arrives back home, it becomes clearer how complicated Ben’s return truly is. They had arranged to go visit him at the treatment center the next day, and he was in no shape to be home. Though Ben swears up and down he was allowed to come home for the day, he’s not being truthful. His lies are nothing new to the family, and have hurt them all deeply, but mom can’t help but be happy to see her baby boy.
As the day progresses, things start out typically Christmas-y. They decorate the tree and the young kids play in the snow. Things take a turn when Ben begs mom to take him to the mall to buy gifts. There, outside of the protective shell of the house, he encounters has past head-on. The turn of events at the mall is fairly minor, but the people he sees set off a chain of events that bring both him and his mother into the trap of his criminal history. It’s clear that Ben was no ordinary user, and he has yet to shed the sins of his previous life.
Though Ben Is Back goes through the motions of being about family and how one person’s addiction can impact a community, it makes a steep slide into being some sort of crime thriller instead. On the one hand, the action is nice to see because the familial drama was half-assed, but on the other it’s a bit concerning that the film was never interested in showing us the emotional and physical impact of addiction.
Julia Roberts is, predictably, wonderful in the role as a mother put into a terrible situation. Rather than balancing stoic tough love with genuine affection, and a good measure of terrified hysteria, she oscillates between these various modes. Ben’s behavior is tearing her apart, but she must keep the family and herself together, somehow. Lesser actresses would not be able to convey all of these warring emotions in a single scene, or length of dialogue, but Roberts nails it.
Ben Is Back is not your typical, weepy addiction drama. But addiction is not a monolith and if adding a little intrigue to this story gives us another version of this story, then it’s fine by me.