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It was only a matter of time. This awards season has brought us Hollywood’s first two attempts to wrestle America’s opioid crisis into something both relatable and uplifting. Did they succeed? Perhaps for some. Notably, both are about suburban white kids who squander their potential on hard drugs. The first, Beautiful Boy, detailed how addiction can consume both parents and children, and that the best thing for the parents to do is to let go. The latest, Ben is Back, suggests they should hold on for dear life.
In the film by Peter Hedges, Julia Roberts plays Holly Burns, whose son Ben (Lucas Hedges) shows up on her door on Christmas Eve, when he is supposed to be in rehab. Nobody in the family is happy about this. His sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is cautiously pleased to see him. Holly’s new husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance), skittish after an unidentified incident with Ben that occured the previous Christmas, wants him out. Holly is the only one who is optimistic about her son’s chances—she seems to view his return as some sort of Christmas miracle—and she convinces the rest of the family to allow him to stay for Christmas Day before returning to rehab.
The film works best in this first half, as Holly struggles to balance her past disappointments with her son and her steadfast belief in his recovery. The family dynamic is richly drawn. Everyone seems to know that Holly is too willing to fool herself about Ben’s chances—Ben included—but no one wants to confront her with the worst possibilities and cause her more pain. Roberts does some of her best work in years here. The qualities that first made her a star—namely, her super-sized smile and bubbly personality—are on full display, but they now have years of depth behind them. Her positivity isn’t innate. It’s performative. Holly hopes her lightness will keep Ben from being dragged down into the dark.
The plot of Ben is Back turns when a sudden crisis forces Ben to revisit his old haunts and former associates to try to recover an item stolen from his family’s home. It is a tour of the suburban underworld, and Holly refuses to let him go alone. It’s a neat narrative trick, exposing her to the truly seedy side of Ben’s life that she has spent every ounce of her energy trying to avoid, but it also stops the film dead in its tracks. You would think that putting two characters on the road with a clear purpose would heighten the tension, but the family scene, with all their unspoken feelings, was far more interesting dynamic. By the time Ben is strapping money to his chest to pay off an old debt to a cartoonishly antisocial drug dealer, Ben is Back has fully lost the thread of reality and devolved into weak genre thrills and “issue movies” cliches.
Perhaps that’s inevitable. The first time that Hollywood takes on a new social issue, it tends toward a Movie of the Week aesthetic. Philadelphia won points for bringing the AIDS crisis to the mainstream, but it’s considered a “straight savior” movie now for foregrounding a homophobic character. We need not list the number of racial movies that avoid the complex realities of structural racism in favor of conclusory depictions of easily won racial harmony. Ben is Back is one of these movies. It’s a film for soccer moms with troubled teens, and while I suppose they deserve their movie, too, it’s hard to imagine this one meaning much to anyone else.
Ben is Back opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.