Peter Hedges, tHe writer/director of the new family drama cum thriller BEN IS BACK rose to film fame with the successful WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? BEN IS BACK tells what happens when Ben, (played by Peter’s son Lucas Hedges, last seen in BOY ERASED and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) the drug addict son of the family returns home for Christmas against the advice of his worker.
His mother Holly (Oscar Winner Julia Roberts) is the only one standing up for him. Neither her new husband Neal or Ben’s sister think it good idea for the unannounced Christmas visit.
It is either Ben making Christmas right or making the biggest f***ing mistake.
The script plays on whether Ben’s intentions on staying clean are genuine. Mother Holly has already warned her son that she is keeping her eyes and checking in him 24/7 and one mistake and she will send him packing to rehab. The film offers many opportunities for hm to be slipped drugs and director Hedges nor makes it clear to Holly or the audience whether he got some or did not. This is the fun part of the film – being in the dark and in suspense as to waits going on.
Ben’s past acquaintances will not leave him alone either. When the family returns from a Christmas Cantata, the family home is broken into and their dog Ponce (played by Nigel) missing. Ben takes off with Holly to find the dog. He ditches her to find his supplier (when he was dealing) to get the dog back but not until doing one last job.
Hedges ties in the thriller element into the family drama. The tactic works wonderfully with the audience tense and glued toothier seat while always on the side of Holly and Ben. Hedges knows how to connect his audience to both the characters and the story.
The script contains one flaw when Ben goes back to drug usage at the end, which is believable as no one can give up a bad habit including smoking and substance abuse. Ben overdoses. One would think that being a dealer would know the safe dosage of cocaine (no to mention he was given only a baggie) that would never overdose. One can only guess that the overdose segment was inserted for the purpose of artistic dramatization.
The film is aided by two Oscar worthy performances. Julia Roberts is so good by just sitting it the car looking scared and confused. Her anger dialogue is also well-written allowing her to show her acting prowess, her character hen breaking out into then use of many ‘f’ words. Hedges is also excellent keeping the advices int he dark as to his true intentions. They make the movie.
The script also works entertaining set-pieces into the story. The segment with Ben’s sister at the Christmas Cantata singing “O Holy Night’ is beautiful especially when her soprano solo reaches the high ‘F’ note.
But the film’s best segment is the one where Holly, after discovering drugs on Ben again, drags him to the graveyard, screaming atheism asking whether wants to be buried. It is a moving and explosive scene and one obviously written (and with success) for artistic dramatization.
BEN IS BACK is a rare family drama tied in with an added thriller element, making it an engrossing watch from start to end. And the greatest joke on the audience is that the same question at the start of the film “whether Ben is making Christmas right or making the biggest f***ing mistake” is still left for the audience to answer.