The horrors of opioid addiction have made bold-faced headlines for years in the United States, so it only makes sense that filmmakers are increasingly using it as storytelling inspiration. Earlier this year, Beautiful Boy gave a real-life look into a destructive codependent parent-child relationship, and now Ben is Back has gone the fictional route for even greater effect.
As the film begins, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) finds her son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), on the doorstep of their home. It’s soon revealed that Ben has come home from a short stint in drug rehab to be with his family for the holidays, a step that does not sit well with his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), or stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance).
Holly is also fighting conflicting feelings, overjoyed at seeing her son but wary of how he has hurt them in the past. Over the course of one day, the impact of Ben’s return spreads all over town, leading to the reopening of old wounds and a variety of situations that both Ben and Holly had hoped would remain in the past.
Writer/director Peter Hedges (Lucas’ father) has crafted a film that unfolds with almost perfect precision. Certain events from the pasts of both Ben and the family as a whole are hinted at early on, and the filmmaker reveals the full extent of those events when they will have the most effect.
The joy — and, yes, that’s the right word, despite the depressing nature of the film — of watching the story unfold is how well everything fits together. Most films, even the best ones, have at least a few contrived situations that interrupt the flow of the plot. There is not one such moment in this film, as the pieces of the story connect seamlessly.
Consequently, everything and everyone in the film feels devastatingly real. It’s easy to feel the heartbreak within the main family of the story, but you know a film is working when those feelings extend to ancillary characters who make relatively brief appearances. The elder Hedges does wonders in grounding the film, never sensationalizing any of its elements.
The story, of course, would be nothing without its actors, and the film is full of superlative performances. Lucas Hedges has had a big year, with roles in Mid90s and Boy Erased, but this is by far his best performance yet. He’s never showy, but he’s still able to get across the truth of Ben’s struggle impeccably.
Likewise, Roberts is as good as she’s ever been as Holly. Too often in her career, it’s been difficult to see her as anything but a “movie star.” In this film, she is nothing but an actor and she is magnificent. Credit must also go to Vance, Newton, and Rachel Bay Jones for their crucial supporting roles.
Quite simply, Ben is Back is spectacular. That’s a word I never thought I’d use for a film such as this, but the nuanced storytelling, subtle directing, and uniformly great performances make it a film that should not be missed.