Ben is Back

 

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A tale of drug addiction that is well meant but unpersuasive in the telling.

 
Ben is Back

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges

 

Two young actors very much in the public eye now and talented enough to sustain long careers are Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges. Chalamet has already won acclaim for playing a gay role in Call Me By Your Name and a drug addict in Beautiful Boy. Now as though in direct competition Hedges follows his gay portrayal in Boy Erased with Ben Is Back in which he plays the addicted son of Julia Roberts. The timing is hardly helpful since Ben Is Back reaches us in the wake of Beautiful Boy and audiences may well feel that one family drama about a drug-taking son is enough. In my own case, having regarded Beautiful Boy as a work seriously weakened by the way in which Felix van Groeningen directed it, I was hoping that Ben Is Back would be the better film. This is after all the work of Peter Hedges, father of Lucas, whose 2007 feature Dan in Real Life had adroitly combined comedy and drama. However, this new work of his is entirely in the dramatic register and, while the story is presented far more straightforwardly than that in Beautiful Boy, I found to my dismay that an air of unreality overhung the whole thing bringing it all far too close to unconvincing melodrama.

 

Whatever their weaknesses, both of these films offer sincere warnings about the dangers of drug abuse and the affect that it can have on youngsters caught up in it and on their families. In such material, there is a harsh reality and Hedges gives a performance that does nothing to weaken his growing reputation. However, Ben Is Back is centred on the relationship of Ben, the Hedges role, and his mother Holly. Roberts in portraying Holly always suggests an actress emoting, but that style is arguably consistent with a screenplay which,  establishing Holly's religious outlook, allows us to hear both 'In the Bleak Mid-Winter' and 'The Holly and the Ivy' within the first five minutes. It is, of course, Christmas Eve with Ben unexpectedly returning home claiming that he has been clean for 77 days and, despite an initial rejection, being told that he can after all stay for a day.

 

Seemingly, two previous Christmas visits have ended in disaster but details are not given and without them Holly's dictatorial treatment of her son seems like the worst possible approach. But the real threat comes from the drug dealer (Michael Esper) who has previously employed Ben. He now wants to bring him into line by breaking into the family house, trashing the Christmas tree (oh no!) and stealing Ben's pet dog. This, together with the prolonged search to find the missing animal in the film's second half, seems increasingly unlikely. In the circumstances, it is the talent of Lucas Hedges and the sincerity of the message that help to sustain the film, but it's a failing battle in the face of the misjudged and unsubtle writing.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Alexandra Park, Michael Esper, Tim Guinee, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Kristian Griffith, Jack Davidson.

 

Dir Peter Hedges, Pro Peter Hedges, Teddy Schwarzman, Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson, Screenplay Peter Hedges, Ph Stuart Dryburgh, Pro Des Ford Wheeler, Ed Ian Blume, Music Dickon Hinchliffe, Costumes Melissa Toth.

 

Black Bear Pictures/30West/Color Force-STX International.
103 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 15 March 2019. Cert. 15.