Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton
Running Time: 103 mins
Ben Is Back is an American film about a drug-addicted teenager who arrives home unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, and his mother’s conflicted response to seeing her son return, but with the scars of addiction looming large.
Only a couple of months after having seen Beautiful Boy, I was fascinated to see how Ben Is Back tackled the topic of teen drug addiction and its impact on the user’s family too. And while I found Beautiful Boy a deeply moving and devastating watch, Ben Is Back takes the same premise and hits you even harder, with a heartbreaking story about the limits of familial love featuring riveting writing, striking directing and two powerhouse central performances from Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges.
Of course, Beautiful Boy and Ben Is Back, while centring on very similar topics, aren’t the same film, and the different approaches they take is what makes this film in particular so enthralling. Both tell of the unrelenting difficulties of recovering from drug addiction, how easy it is to fall back into using, and how a family’s trust can be so devastatingly destroyed by its presence at any time.
However, while Beautiful Boy sees a father being pushed over the edge as he desperately tries to help his son recover, Ben Is Back sees a mother pushing that edge all the way to rescue her son and family, and as such has a far more positive, optimistic heart.
That doesn’t mean that this is in any way a pleasant watch. Its more positive attitude is emulated by Julia Roberts’ relentless determination and Lucas Hedges’ earnest attempts to recover, however because that glimmer of hope is so strong throughout, it feels all the more painful when it’s so cruelly ripped away as the spectre of drugs returns to break the family apart.
And that’s where Ben Is Back proves such a heartbreaking watch. It’s a devastating depiction of the unrelenting horror of drug addiction, but more than that, it’s a deeply saddening portrayal of how, sometimes, not even the boundless love of a mother can save her son, something that hit me really hard throughout, even inducing a few tears towards the finale.
So, there’s no denying that the film’s core message hits home in astonishing fashion, but there’s even more to Ben Is Back than simply telling of the struggles against drug addiction, as it offers up an equally riveting, devastating and even exciting crime-drama story that follows Roberts and Hedges as they cross town on an endless Christmas Eve in search of answers to a recent calamity.
In the midst of their ever-tensing relationship, the mother and son find themselves tied closer than ever as they dive deep into the drug underworld that has ruined so many lives around them. And in that, while there is tension and unpredictability as the danger and threat grows as they find themselves deeper into unknown territory, it’s a deeply touching portrayal of the strength of motherly love towards a son,
She does absolutely everything – far more than anyone else in her family – to make sure her son is safe, and that proves by far the film’s most heartfelt and touching message, even if it is often ripped away from you in truly heartbreaking fashion.
And finally, that’s where the lead performances come into play. Lucas Hedges is as strong as ever in a very meaty role, combining the characteristics of an innocent young man whose life has been destroyed by drugs, and a matured, slowly reforming person with an earnest desire to make amends for all he has done wrong. In that, the character is far more layered than Timothée Chalamet’s in Beautiful Boy, and Hedges’ fantastic performance reflects that brilliantly.
But there’s no getting away from Julia Roberts’ incredible turn as his mother. Bringing her effortless and natural likability and on-screen warmth to the character, there’s not a moment where you doubt the strength of her character’s love towards her son.
And yet, Roberts is able to temper that with a determined, strong-willed and often gritty turn that sees her dive deep into the world that destroyed her son’s life, thereby further demonstrating her character’s boundless love, as well as lending such stunning emotional depth and versatility to a character that often doesn’t receive the same limelight in many similar films.
Overall, I was hugely impressed by Ben Is Back. A riveting drama that features truly heartbreaking emotion and devastating struggle, as well as a deeply touching and heartfelt core of optimism, it’s a film that will hit you where it hurts again and again, yet stun with layered characters and striking performances from beginning to end, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.1.