Ben is Back movie cast: Lucas Hedges, Julia Roberts, Kathryn Newton, Courtney B Vance
Ben is Back movie director: Peter Hedges
Ben is Back movie rating: 3 stars
A lot of parenting involves setting boundaries and then bargaining your way around them. Parents give some, children take some, and in the many, many years it takes, you can never be sure where that line should fall. Should you have been harsher or kinder? Should you be stricter, or more lenient? What can one forgive, and what not forget? Was what happened your fault, or theirs? Will what will follow your doing, or theirs?
Ben is Back starts with a mother, Holly (Roberts), and her son, Ben (Lucas), dancing their way around that boundary. Theirs is a more extreme case. He is a drug addict, with several relapses, who has arrived suddenly home from rehab on Christmas eve, supposedly with an okay from his therapist. The family is terrified, from experience, of what may follow. But can Holly turn away Ben, on Christmas, when he is so desperately trying to show he has changed? So a deal is stuck. Ben can be home just for Christmas, or the next 24 hours, only if he never strays away from Holly’s sight, while she hides away all the drugs and jewellery that can be temptation.
The aching bond of wounded trust and desperate love between Holly and Ben is captured well by writer-director Hedges here (Lucas Hedges’s real-life father). Roberts stands like a wall between Ben and the rest of the world, including her husband (Vance) and daughter (Newton), who are not as charitable towards her son. At the same time, she can’t help but lash out at him, or give trite speeches on how good he could be, that sound hollow to both of them. Lucas, who was so, so good in the recent Boy Erased, plays a similar character here, if in different circumstances. As the son who repeatedly disappoints and knows it, he is very good.
Despite Christmas and church being a prominent part of the film, it avoids taking the easy road down the themes of redemption, forgiveness and second chances.
But later, it’s the film that lets Ben and Holly down, with the latter half turning into a very shallow, much too broad look at the larger horrors of America’s drug epidemic. The pretext that sets up a night-long ride through the orderly suburbs where Holly has built her seemingly beautiful life, bringing out the underbelly that lurks in its dark corners, is never very credible. The more the film slips away from both Holly and Ben, the more it becomes flatter and flatter.
There is a small scene in the first half where Ben locks the door of a changing room at a crowded mall as a terrified Holly bangs on it. The horror in her voice tells a better story than all that follows later.
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