Have you noticed the close run battle that is currently going on in the younger generation of up and coming leading men in Hollywood? I’m talking, of course, about the similar career trajectories of Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges. The two actors have both tried their hand at coming of age same sex themed stories in Call Me By Your Name and Boy Erased, they’ve found time to feature together in Lady Bird, and now Lucas is following suit with his own film depicting drug addiction. Chalamet went first in the solid but not stunning Beautiful Boy, would Hedges be able to top his contemporary in Ben Is Back?
The film tells the story of the Burns-Beeby family over the Christmas period, as mother Holly (Julia Roberts) returns home on Christmas Eve to find her eldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges) on the doorstep, eager to spend time with his parents and siblings even though he is still supposed to be in rehab. Full of promises and positive affirmations, Ben reassures his family of his good health and good progress, and they eventually grant him a twenty four hour stay. However, as the narrative progresses at a healthy pace, the audience soon see that all is not well with Ben, and the impact of his early homecoming sends the family in to a tailspin that builds to a dramatic and heart wrenching climax.
On the whole, there is something rather generic and familiar about the highs and lows of Ben Is Back, especially if you, like me, tend to watch of lot of similarly themed dramas. However, I have to say that there is also something about the film that really pulled me in and held me from start to finish. A particular complaint I still have about Beautiful Boy is that the film feels somewhat indulgent and superior in its treatment of white, middle class drug addiction, but I don’t feel anything approaching that in Ben Is Back. The film leans in to a lot of melodrama, especially in a final third that feels almost more like thriller territory than muted drama, and I know that should have me turning my nose up at it, but against my better judgement I remained invested throughout.
Amidst the more generic melodrama, the film does find time to highlight and emphasise some of the more poignant and painful elements of a story like this. There is a desperation in the impending, inevitable relapse behaviour that is really effective and tense, giving the audience some tiny idea of what it must be like to have a loved one living through an addiction/recovery cycle. The film also takes a few subtle but sharp jibes at the lack of effort there is within society to stem the flow of this American opioid crisis. The very same dispensary that refuses to renew an expired overdose revival kit for Holly because their policy is not to ‘promote irresponsible behaviour’, happily provides Ben with clean syringes later on without any form of questioning. These smaller scale moments, for me at least, have more impact than any of the over the top stuff in the final third, but on the whole, you take the good with the not so good and come out with a solid cinematic experience in the end.
I am absolutely positive that a huge portion of my unexpectedly high enjoyment of Ben Is Back is thanks to some of the fantastic central performances in the film. I would even go as far as saying that both Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts give far better performances than the actual quality of the picture deserves. As Ben, Hedges is heartbreakingly likeable, exuding all of the qualities that make his visible demons even harder to watch on screen, not to mention more compelling. It isn’t necessarily fair to compare two completely different characters from two completely different films, but what I will say is that whilst I truly did not like Timothée Chalamet’s protagonist in Beautiful Boy, I really did like Hedges’ in Ben Is Back. Chalamet is definitely top of the pops in terms of current fandom and pop culture popularity, but on the balance of their work to date, I have to say I think I’m on team Hedges. But then again, why the hell should I be pitting them against one another in the first place?
It sounds a silly thing to say, but sometimes I forget just how much of a good god damn movie star Julia Roberts is. The woman physically shines on camera and whether she is playing comedy or tragedy, she commands every inch of the screen. I admit I haven’t seen everything in between, but as far as I am concerned this marks her best performance since 2013’s August: Osage County. As Holly, she is perhaps a more complicated mother figure than we sometimes see in these types of movies, not simply wallowing in the sorrow of her circumstances, but making decisions along the way that we are supposed to recognise are not ideal, but at the same time are utterly human. Together, Roberts and Hedges are a dynamite mother/son duo. There are a broad and impressive cast of supporting performers in the film, but really, everything else fades in to the background when put up against the angry, loving, sympathetic, desperate, forgiving, vulnerable chemistry that these two share.
Overall, Ben Is Back really feels like a film that is much better than it the sum of its parts suggests it would be. There is no denying there is a thicker than preferable layer of melodrama across the narrative, especially the final stages, but even with this layer in place, I found myself really affected and moved by much of the picture. Could it have been grittier? Sure. Does it really show the full extent and damage of drug addiction? Perhaps not. But one thing is for sure, Julia Roberts is a flipping charismatic movie star, and Lucas Hedges is no slouch either. It’s a compelling character drama that kept me gripped and invested until the end, if you only have the time or patience to watch one drug addiction drama this year, I’d pick this over Beautiful Boy every time.