Our guest writer/correspondence John H Foote writes from TIFF18, about Julia Robert starrer – Ben Is Back
The second film to deal with teenage drug addiction I have encountered this year, ‘Beautiful Boy’ is the first. ‘Ben is Back’ is attracting attention because it stars Julia Roberts in a demanding role in which she does outstanding work, but is failed by the screenplay.
Out shopping with her kids, Holly (Roberts) returns home to find her wayward son Ben (Lucas Hedges) has arrived home for Christmas. This puzzles her, and her children, most of all her mistrustful husband because Ben is in yet another rehab trying to get clean. His addiction has turned their lives upside down, and up to his arrival, Holly thinks she has seen and heard it all, but realizes, quickly she knows nothing about her son.
Ben is a buoyant charm and happy to be home, but he is dishonest, lies to his mother constantly, and in a trip to the local shopping mall is spotted by some people who want him to pay for the betrayals he brought upon them. He spots the people who see him and knows that it will be around town very quickly that he is home. The family attend church on Christmas Eve where the growing awareness of what he has done to his family and others around begins to hit home, causing him to weep in the church. Touched, his mother gently rests her head on his shoulder, hoping all might be well.
Returning home they find their home robbed, broken into and a mess left. Worse, the beloved family dog has been taken. Holly suspects Ben knows who did it, and together despite the protests of her husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) the two of them head off into the night to find the dog. The journey overwhelms Holly who learns her son prostituted himself to a school teacher (male), broke into homes to get drugs or steal money, was a dealer, and got himself in deep with a dealer who has taken offence to Ben leaving the life. It seems the farther into the black of the night they go, the darker his life becomes.
The problem with the film is the same one I had with ‘Beautiful Boy’, what drove Ben to get addicted to drugs? Small town boredom? It can happen, a challenging life at home, though everyone seems to love each other, though no one with reasons trusts him. It feels too often like a TV movie with strong language and might be better suited for HBO or Showtime rather than the big screen. That said the performances, two of them at least are remarkable.
Lucas Hedges, so good in ‘Manchester By the Sea’ (2016) is astounding as Ben, tormented by what his actions have done to his family, and though determined to break free of the auction, he just cannot manage to do so. Filled with genuine self-loathing, hating what he has brought upon his family, placing them in danger at the hands of drug dealers, he is terribly conflicted. He feels terrible guilt for the death of a young girl he hooked on drugs and knows his mother and sister are as afraid of him as much as they love. It is a terrific performance that furthers this young man’s career.
Roberts has always been a good actress, and at times shown flashes of greatness. There were moments of brilliance in ‘Pretty Woman’ (1990), and that Oscar-winning work in ‘Erin Brockovich’ (2000) cannot be denied, nor can her superb, under-appreciated turn in ‘Closer’ (2004), so it no surprise that she delivers the goods here. She has a key scene in which she sits down in a food court with the doctor who first prescribed her son painkillers, the beginning of her nightmare. Tormented by what her son has done, but as much for him as for her family, the agony registers clearly on her face, the weight of his actions wears her down. Like any parent the guilt she feels is staggering, her love fierce, and her grief and disappointment haunting every moment of her waking life.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges, father of Lucas, I wish I could say the film was better than it is because the intentions are noble. Tough to watch, especially I think if families have suffered through this sort of hell.
The Cinemawala Rating: 2.5/5