What is it about movie ideas that seem to come in twos? From Dante’s Peak and Volcano in the nineties to Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached less than a decade ago, with countless other examples in between and since, this tendency to greenlight remarkably similar movies at around the same time seems to never end. Well, this year it’s heartwrenching family dramas about drug addict sons.
It’s too bad Beautiful Boy is getting all of the attention, because as it happens, Ben Is Back is the better of the two.
Ben Is Back is not without its own flaws, what with so much going on, crammed into a bit too little time to tell it all, an entire family history revealed over the course of one Christmas Eve. That said, writer-director Peter Hedges (who happens to be father of star Lucas Hedges) has some skill within that framework, revealing background details through the action currently unfolding, and never once resorting to flashback. In this film, the narrative is propelled forward from the start, with the Ben of the title (that being Lucas Hedges) suddenly showing up unexpected at his upper-middle-class home when he’s scheduled to be at his recovery facility over the holiday.
Things sort of spiral from there, albeit at a tolerable pace and in a fairly organic fashion. Ben is doing the best he can, and Hedges makes it easy to root for him in spite of his clear and many gargantuan failings. That doesn’t stop it all from being . . . a little much. In the end, Ben Is Back is not easy to watch, especially if someone you care about or are close to is also an addict. You’ll want to keep tissues handy. And the emotional hits, while deceptively minor at first, ultimately come hard and heavy. A sudden burst of hope can come imbued with heartbreaking skepticism.
I don’t usually like to do this, but with the two movies coming out so close to each other, comparisons are inescapable. Beautiful Boy frustratingly left the causes of its protagonist’s addiction untold; Ben Is Back provides that background, and does it by showing rather than telling. Beautiful Boy hardly seems aware of its characters’ quite obvious white privilege, much less mentions it; in Ben Is Back, Ben’s stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) is black, has produced two half-siblings for Ben, and he even utters the line, “If he were black, he’d be in jail by now.” I wonder how many people might roll their eyes at what seems like a line shoehorned in, but the fact remains: we can’t be reminded of that truth often enough. It also remains true that empathetic portrayals of addicts are not nearly often enough about people of color, but at least this movie acknowledges the disparity.
Ben does have another sister from his mother’s previous marriage, Ivy (Big Little Lies’s Kathryn Newton), who is immediately and understandably skeptical and resentful upon his return. The crux of the story, though, is between Ben and his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts, who has never been better). So yes, once again, it’s a story about how one kid’s chaos-inducing addictions have torn a family apart, but more specifically, affected his relationship with his closest parent.
Ben is trying to be honest and do by right by those he loves (and those who love him), but increasingly dire consequences of past mistakes catch up with him quickly. Maybe a little too quickly, what with how closely this story flirts with becoming overwrought. Whether it quite crosses that line, or the degree to which it does, could be up for debate. Either way, if you’re looking for a good cry, Ben Is Back will do the trick, with impressively constructed if sometimes subtly contrived storytelling. If nothing else, the performances are good enough that you won’t be able to look away, much as you’ll often want to.