Two years ago, young actor Lucas Hedges gave a breakthrough, Oscar-nominated performance in “Manchester by the Sea”. Now, following roles in 2017’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and this year’s “mid90s” and “Boy Erased”, Hedges stars in his father’s latest film.
“Ben is Back” is directed by Peter Hedges (“Dan in Real Life”, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”), with son Lucas in the title role. Ben is an opioid addict, currently 77 days clean. He leaves his treatment facility and returns home to be with his family on Christmas Eve. This surprises everyone, including mom Holly (played by Julia Roberts).
She believes Ben when he says he’s doing well. She sees him as healthier and happier. Others in the family, including Ben’s younger sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance) aren’t convinced.
The first half of “Ben is Back” plays much like “Manchester” (with a slightly less depressing tone). It’s a solemn family drama about a son battling addiction and facing past mistakes, and a mother in denial about both of those things. But once night falls the narrative takes a drastic turn. Suddenly “Ben is Back” becomes a detective/chase/suspense thriller, with Roberts’ character turning into an amateur narc. Things do get little overly-dramatic in spots. But the crime story does serve to add an important (and ugly) element of this national crisis to the film.
Throughout, Hedges (the director) remains focussed on presenting a personal look at effects of the opioid epidemic. The recently released “Beautiful Boy” also tells an important story of drug addiction. But, set in the early 2000s, it feels dated. “Ben is Back” is the relevant movie of today. Hedges, who also wrote the script, slowly unravels layers of this complex family dynamic. And he provides the always reliable Roberts with several scenes of desperation – lashing out at doctors, dealers, pharmacies and the police – for their destructive roles in what has happened to Ben. She’s speaking for the thousands and thousands of real-life parents who have lost children to opioid addition.
The young Hedges is amassing quite a portfolio of diverse, meaningful performances. His body of work in 2018 will put him in everyone’s award season conversations. Roberts earned her several nominations for 2013’s “August: Osage County”. But that film was such a mess (“EAT THE FISH!”), I think she got those noms simply due to her career resume. This screen-commanding performance in “Ben is Back” is by far her most sophisticated and attention-grabbing since her Oscar winning role in “Erin Brockovich” nearly two decades ago.
What “Ben is Back” lacks in power it makes-up for in authenticity and importance. It was just a matter of time before Hollywood addressed America’s #1 crisis. It may not turn-out to be the best film ever made on the opioid epidemic. But until that one comes along, this one needs to be seen.