Ben is Back, 2018, 4 stars

Holiday with the Hedges

Father-son team tackles drug addiction

Image copyright Black Bear Pictures / Roadside Attractions

From The Orlando Weekly, December 19, 2018

Thank goodness for wunderkind Lucas Hedges. Without him, we’d be stuck with mediocre tales of “gay-conversion” therapy and drug addiction. But just as he, in Boy Erased, rescued the former topic from the clutches of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, he has now saved the latter by topping Beautiful Boy with the superior Ben is Back.

But filmmaking, like addiction recovery, takes the efforts of many, and Hedges certainly had help with Ben is Back. In fact, he didn’t have to look far to find it. Written and directed by his dad, Peter, and co-starring Julia Roberts in one of the five best female performances of the year, this familial collaboration is a powerful, personal tale of a young man in the throes of addiction, with only his mom to help him.

If Die Hard can be labeled a holiday film along with more traditional choices such as Miracle on 34th Street and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, so can this movie, as Ben (the younger Hedges) shows up unexpectedly at his family’s doorstep on Christmas Eve. But there’s no Clark Griswold here. Instead, we get a tale as gut-wrenching as Phoebe Cates’s in Gremlins, in which she describes how her father, dressed as Santa, died in their family’s chimney. And though there is a slightly better chance of a happy ending in Ben is Back, the only one who seems to think that is his mother (Roberts) – not his stepdad (Courtney B. Vance) and not his sister (Kathryn Newton). Indeed, Ben is almost on an island, existentially. And by depicting him as an isolated, pathological liar torn between recovery and relapse, the elder Hedges has created a portrait of addiction more resonant than any other recent film.

“He’s clearly doing better,” Ben’s mom tells his stepdad upon his surprise return. And she desperately wants to believe he is healthy, especially after Ben reassures her that the rehab center at which he’s been living has approved his holiday visit. Still, it’s a tough sell for the family, and even for Ben, who is forced to admit, “You’re all still scared of me.”

Structurally simple yet thematically profound, Ben sneaks up on you emotionally thanks in part to its suspense-filled second half. Not content with table conversations or addiction clichés, the film takes us on a strange odyssey that forces Ben to confront his past. A Bizzaro World version of Jimmy Stewart’s reflections near the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, Ben’s journey slowly becomes a winter wonderland of shit. It’s the type of trip one prays to take only in a movie.

When the Oscars began in 1929, acting awards were presented for a body of work over an entire year, not a single performance. That practice quickly ended, but with the Academy making all sorts of weird decisions lately, hey, maybe they will reconsider their original format. And if they do, look for Lucas, as his roles in Mid90s, Boy Erased and Ben is Back have put him at the top of the 2018 pile.

© 2018 Orlando Weekly / MeierMovies, LLC