Films that are released during the holidays are defined by family and hope. “Ben is Back” is no exception to this rule, but it is the most depressing hopeful film I’ve ever seen.
“Ben is Back” stars Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, with great support from Courtney B. Vance and Kathryn Newton, and is helmed by writer and director Peter Hedges.
When recovering drug addict Ben (Hedges) comes home, unexpectedly, for the holidays the entire family is uprooted with uncertainty and relived pain. Ben’s mother, Holly (Roberts), welcomes her son back but still carries the burden of watching her son struggle. In the 24 hours following his arrival, the family is tested and Ben finds himself in harm’s way. Holly must, in turn, draw on the strength of a mother’s unconditional love.
“Ben is Back” is defined by performances and carried on the wings of subtle emotion. The entire cast absolutely shines in showing every shade of concern, hopelessness, cynical optimism, and love.
The ensemble beautifully illustrates the full spectrum of family dynamics and does it with great heart and sincerity. And Julia Roberts is their queen.
Julia Roberts has crossed a threshold in her career. She’s more than just the Pretty Woman with the bright smile of all your light-hearted, rom-com desires. Roberts comes out the gate swinging in this dramatic role as an elegant, but struggling mother.
Roberts has a beauty and elegance that perfectly mirrors the façade of her character, Holly, but there are cracks under the surface and a haggard quality that Roberts pulls off in her expression. She wears the character like a skin and it’s damn impressive.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of her and her performance is a standout in the film.
Truthfully, the whole cast did quite well. Kathryn Newton and Courtney B. Vance gave solid performances and Lucas Hedges has found his tragic niche in films like this one, “Mid90s,” and “Boy Erased.”
While the performances make the movie, “Ben is Back” does sit on a solid foundation of great writing and directing. The film has a layer of gritty discomfort on it that only just lets the hope shine through. It makes a hell of a difference. Well done.
If “Ben is Back” suffers from anything it is Too Much Syndrome. There’s a lot of heavy stuff packed into this film. Around every turn and even in the most casual of circumstances, the story hits you with the sad, the disappointing, and the horrific.
It does a good job, with respect to emotional manipulation, but it does create a numbness that takes one out of the story.
Less may have been more, in this case. The heart can only take so much.
My verdict? “Ben is Back” is an exercise in distress but it is done well. Roberts alone is worth the price of admission. I give it a light matinee and a warning that this one is a downer!
Consume responsibly and bring tissues.
“Ben is Back” comes to theaters December 7, 2018.
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.