The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - BEN IS BACK | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - BEN IS BACK

ben is back review
A young drug addict unexpectedly arrives home for Christmas.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Peter Hedges

Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton

ben is back poster

Filmmakers casting their children in their movies hasn't always yielded great results. Strangers on a Train might be one of Hitchcock's most acclaimed movies, but it failed to propel his daughter Patricia into stardom. After her reviled turn in her father's Godfather III, Sofia Coppola wisely decided her future lay behind, rather than in front of the camera. Perhaps the greatest filmmaker father/actress daughter combo is Vincente and Liza Minnelli, but who remembers their collaboration on 1976's A Matter of Time, not to mention Bruce and Gwyneth Paltrow's Duets?

Sometimes the acting child quickly overshadows their filmmaking father. That's the case with Lucas Hedges, who in the space of a couple of years has established himself as one of America's most interesting young actors, while his father, Peter Hedges, has failed to join the ranks of the modern auteurs. The two collaborate with a degree of success on Ben is Back, a somewhat superficial addiction drama enlivened by the performances of Hedges Junior and a resurgent Julia Roberts.

ben is back review

Hedges is the eponymous Ben, who skips his rehab centre to spend Christmas with his family. His mother, Holly (Roberts), is delighted to see him, but his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton - and yes, mother and daughter are indeed named Holly and Ivy!?!?!?) and stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) aren't so enthused. Ben, it's hinted at, did some terrible things while under the grip of his addiction, and as Neal points out, if Ben were black he'd be in jail rather than rehab. Neal reluctantly compromises and allows Ben to spend Christmas Eve at home, on the proviso that he return to rehab the following day.

Holly and Ben spend an afternoon reconnecting, visiting a shopping mall where she runs into and has an angry confrontation with the now senile doctor whose painkiller prescriptions she blames on her son's subsequent addiction, part of the film's unpalatable demonisation of the medical profession. When Ben gets anxious after spotting a figure from the past, he insists they get to the nearest Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

ben is back review

The first half of Ben is Back is a black comedy much along the lines of Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, and it allows Hedges and Roberts to cash-in their comic chips. The two have a natural rapport with one another, and the latter really sells Holly's anxiety around her son, panicking when he leaves her side to chat with a young woman during the meeting and blowing her top when he refuses to open the door of a clothing store's changing room. It's the best role Roberts has been gifted in quite some time, and a reminder of why she was once the biggest star in the world.

The film takes a wild tonal shift when later that evening, the family returns home to find their house broken into and the family dog missing. Ben claims he knows who is responsible and reluctantly allows his mother to tag along as he introduces her to a seedy side of her hometown she was previously oblivious to. Ben is Back thus shifts from a comedy of awkwardness to something approaching a remake of Michael Mann's Collateral, and it increasingly stretches credulity.

There's one moment where Ben confesses to being sexually exploited by a teacher, and his mother's reaction is uncharacteristically mooted. Minutes later we see her lose her temper with a pharmacist - another crude rant against the medical industry - so it's simply impossible to believe she wouldn't turn the car around and confront her son's abuser.

ben is back review

Ben is Back
is essentially a two character drama, but while Hedges and Roberts are both excellent here, it's disappointing that Vance's Neal is given such short shrift. It's hinted that he has made great financial sacrifices to help his stepson, but the film paints Neal as something of a cold-hearted villain in comparison to the boy's mother. There's arguably a more interesting story to be told about a black man who has beaten the odds to make something of his life attempting to prevent his white stepson from pissing away his privilege.

It all gets a bit silly by the end, and its portrayal of the world of drug addicts suggests nobody involved has ever encountered a real life addict (I've certainly never met a junkie with Hedges' footballer's physique), but Ben is Back does boast two outstanding central performances, which may prove enough to keep viewers engaged.

Ben is Back is on Netflix UK/ROI now.