Ben is Back: Julia Roberts Steals the Show as Panic-Stricken Mother

Ben is Back tells the heartbreaking story of a family battling through the ups and downs of a drug dependent son/brother whose untimely return wreaks havoc on family life. Reminiscent of the recent release of Beautiful Boy, a film just as beautiful as it is name, Ben is Back is a desperately realistic portrayal of a parent-child relationship tainted by addiction at its heart.

A snapshot of the emotional roller coaster packed into its modest 90 minute screen time flashed before my eyes in the first moments when we see Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) pulls up the driveway to find her son Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges), who is supposed to be safe in rehab,  standing on the front door steps. An extraordinary swirl of excitement, love, tenderness, concern, fear and anger present on Roberts face offers a brief glimpse into the turmoil Ben has put the family through in recent years.

Taking place over just 24 hours, Ben is Back cleverly portrays the ambivalent emotions each family member feels with the unexpected arrival of the young addict for the festive period, a time when being surrounded by family is of peak importance. Lucas Hedges has been one to watch ever since his stand out performance in Manchester by the Sea (2016) as Patrick Chandler, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. As the son of Ben is Back’s director-screenwriter Lucas Hedges and the poet and actress Susan Bruce, it is only natural that Chandler has real on-screen talent. Though at times slightly clumsy in its depiction of drug abuse, Hedges’ crafting of a role for his son is nonetheless gripping.

However, it is Julia Roberts whose performance is the real stand out in this film. Grief stricken on the inside, with an understandably cautious mentality when hiding prescription drugs, jewellery and anything else which could be particularly triggering for her son, she puts on a united front on the surface. Teetering on the edge of sloppy thriller at times nearer the conclusion of the film, Ben is Back is at its best when highlighting an opioid epidemic that causes dependency, devastation and loss amongst families. Make no mistake here, it is well-intentioned in its subtler moments, painting a picture of small-town America and all it can hide. But many of these moments are lost or quickly dismissed by a storyline that in the end really just focuses on the family dog going missing, hurtling to a slightly rushed and inconclusive ending. The last moments of the film are powerful, but could be stronger with a slightly more careful curation of narrative.

Image Courtesy of Mark Schafer/LD Ent/Roadside Attractions