Film review: ‘BEN IS BACK’ by Nick Gardener from Built For Speed

The vaguely titled Ben Is Back follows on from last year’s Beautiful Boy in examining the impact on families of a son’s drug addiction.   While the film addresses an important topic and contains some poignant moments, it doesn’t have quite the impact it should as it plays like a more intense midday movie.

Lucas Hedges (who was terrific in Boy Erased) plays the eponymous Ben, a young guy who has spent the last few years in drug rehab following what appears to have been a downward spiralling addiction and undisclosed crimes. Returning home unexpectedly for Christmas, Ben is greeted with suspicion by his sister (Kathryn Newton) and stepfather (Courtney B Vance) but his mother Holly (Julia Roberts) desperately wants to believe he has reformed. Much of the film focuses on her slightly maniacal attempts to welcome him back to the family and redirect him into a conventional white suburban middle-class life, all the while ignoring warning signs that he hasn’t changed. Inevitably, Ben’s past catches up with him and threatens not only Ben but also his family.

Lucas Hedges does a fine job capturing a damaged young guy who craves acceptance but is still prey to an addiction and the destructive manipulative behaviours that entails. He convincingly exudes instability and potential violence beneath a relatively benign surface. Julia Roberts thoroughly embraces the role of Ben’s mother shifting between desperate protectiveness and bitter disappointment. At times she threatens to chomp the scenery but reins in any histrionics to hit the right note as a devastated parent. Kathryn Newton as Ben’s sharp witted and suspicious sister and Courtney B Vance as his stern but good-hearted step father also offer strong support although Michael Esper is a little too gentlemanly as a local drug dealer, Clayton.

The tense scenes of family reconciliation and recrimination are generally effective but the film eventually transforms into a middling crime drama that too often resembles a standard telemovie, albeit with more expletives.

It’s no coincidence that, with frequent media discussion of the crippling opioid addiction in the US, we’re seeing films like Ben is Back and Beautiful Boy. Films like this are certainly dealing with a worthy topic but one that deserves a more confronting and original treatment than Ben is Back delivers.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Peter Hedges.

Release date: 31st Jan 2019.

Running time: 103 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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