Julia Roberts takes a harrowing journey through a parent’s worst nightmare in the extremely raw and poignant family drama Ben is Back in a performance that uses every part soul.
Drug addicted teenage boy Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) shows up unexpectedly at his family’s home on Christmas Eve and forces his mother Holly (Julia Roberts) to come to turns with his addictions. Placed in an exceedingly difficult situation, Holly must decide on just how far she wants to go to help him overcome his demons.
Director Peter Hedges lays his subject matter bare in his study of the evils of drug addiction and how this problem not only consumes the addict but also everyone else around them. Raw and unflinching, Hedges packs his film into a very tightly concentrated narrative that unfolds the night before Christmas, and as the hours pass you feel the mounting pressure of Ben’s addiction way on his family. While audiences are not strangers to the idea of drugs on film, I’d happen to say that Ben is Back is more concerned with how these problems affect those around the users, rather than the users themselves, and here these real-world horrors really mount up as Ben drags his family back further into the choices of his past that have very present consequences.
Taking the lead in the film is Academy Award winner Julia Roberts and in her performance as distraught mother Holly Barnes she completely goes from A-Z. While Roberts has always had a handle on the dramatic I almost feel that Ben is Back is her most savage performance to date as she brings a very real reaction when her drug addict son arrives on her doorstep on the edge of Christmas. While everyone tries to persuade her to push him away, Holly simply can’t do this and her mothers love stays true. And it’s this exact love that will be tested like no other through the film’s harrowing events.
As she takes it upon herself to once again look after Ben through his one night of freedom she witnesses first hand the horrors of her son’s addiction, and we slowly learn just how much of a toll this has taken on her. Part of what makes Roberts so convincing in the role is that you never know where she is going to turn and there is always a chance that things will get a lot worse for Holly and Ben. But as a mother, she simply cannot look away and she’ll do anything to protect her son from himself. It’s a truly remarkable performance and Roberts definitely pulls at your emotions on all your emotions here.
Taking on the role of Holly’s drug addict son Ben is Lucas Hedges, who also happens to be the son of director Peter Hedges, and the young actor really takes you for a ride here. While he might be all boyish-charm and innocent youth you come to learn that his habits have turned him into a literal devil who has hurt so many people throughout his short life and that his uncontrollable longing for the release of any possible drug has made everyone turn from him except his mother. Hedges really brings a lot of sympathy to the character and as you see him struggle with his addiction you find yourself feeling equal parts of hate and sorrow for him. It’s a performance that marks Hedges out as a performer to really keep an eye on and we’ll be looking forward to seeing where he goes next.
Shot with a beautiful cool style that picks up the cold beauty of a winter Christmas, Ben is Back draws you into two unique worlds: the wholesome, warm family life of Barnes family and the decrepit and pained world that Ben has chosen to inhabit. Hedges direction is subtle and he’s shot the film with an almost documentary feel that relies heavily on handheld camera work, and the production really narrows your focus to the film’s narrative and imbues Holly’s chase with a frenzied kinetic movement as she desperately tries to get her son through a very long night.
Ben is Back is an unflinching look at a modern nightmare and its narrative really plays with your emotions. While its content might be harsh, it’s central theme of love triumphing above all else will really pull at your heartstrings and absolutely move you.
Image: Roadshow Films