Great Lead Chemistry;
Tense, Melodramatic Script;
Slightly Holds It Back.
Let’s get the Beautiful Boy comparisons out of the way so they aren’t a focus. Yes, this is also a story of teenage addiction and its effects on a family. Yes, the leads are both boys, surprising their parent, stepparent and young half-siblings with unexpected home visits that test the family bonds. And yes, there are similar themes of past pain, mistrust and the difficulty of sobriety in the throes of heroin addiction. But where the films take a similar thematic path, they certainly divert in their approach and execution. In Beautiful Boy, addiction is the drama, but Ben is Back uses addiction as the source that drives the drama, eventually turning into thriller territory as the family is forced to deal with skeletons they didn’t know Ben had lurking in his closet.
While I definitely appreciated the script going in directions I didn’t expect and steering clear of a lot of overly familiar fare, it also has some contrivances that it is difficult to get your head around. It is ambitious in that regard, merging big stars an indie aesthetic, but as real as the overall story is, some of the plot points are not believable. And while I really liked the messy narrative not coming to a perfectly tidy conclusion, it ended so abruptly that it seemed more concerned with subverting your expectations than wrapping up its story.
The casting is great, as everyone seems perfectly matched with their roles and each other. Julia Roberts brings her A game, giving us a window into the soul of a mother named Holly who has clearly been burned by her son Ben too many times to leave the medicine and jewelry out when he’s around, but not enough times to write him off. She wears her pain visibly, trying to hide a mountain of worry behind the visage of a forced smile. The way she calmly hands out fifteen minutes of additional screen time to the two smaller siblings, and their calmly excited response, shows that she is in full control of her house. Ben’s surprise arrival threatens this, and she is decidedly less sure of herself, from her body language to decision making. Holly is conflicted at every turn and Roberts shoulders the weight marvelously, full of nervous energy, emotion and cautious optimism. Holly has just enough love to trump her anger, but it leads her down a dark path and Roberts does a great job conveying everything. As Ben, Lucas Hedges is more understated, but just as powerful. His self-loathing is as plain to see as his various triggers once he is back home, and there is a bittersweet haze hanging over his desire to protect his family from the danger his actions have caused. His actions don’t always ring true from a writing standpoint (he is, after all, an addict and not to be trusted, in his own words), but Hedges dives into the material headfirst and gives his third powerful performance from late 2018 (along with Boy Erased and Mid90s), showing resolve and fragility along the bumps in his road. He doesn’t want to need his mother, but he does, despite his assertion that he doesn’t deserve the love and effort. Roberts and Hedges are fantastic together late in the film as they set out together to make things right, with more of the son’s damage being slowly revealed to the mother, his shame giving way to her grief over what they have both lost. Supporting the two leads are Courtney B Vance in a very good turn as the stepfather who is able to see the situation with more clarity than Holly and Kathryn Newton as the scorned younger sister Ivy, who clearly believes the best family times with Ben are long past, despite her love for him.
Aiding the concept that addiction creates chaos, the editing can be a bit frantic at times, but never borders becoming obnoxious. It helps give the sense of everything being off from the ordinary routine, and adds to the sense of urgency when the story ramps up. There are no tricks or heavy-handed visual stylings to distract from the point of the story, which is a fractured family attempting to put the pieces back together amidst new turmoil. Peter Hedges, Lucas’s father, has put together a very solid film that may be overlooked based on thematic similarities to the more widely-known Beautiful Boy, but the work from the cast should not go unappreciated. This is a powerful showcase for Roberts and Hedges, and they are up to the challenge.