Ben is Back is a new film written and directed by Peter Hedges featuring his son Lucas Hedges and co-star Julia Roberts. The movie is about a drug-addicted teenager who returns home for the holidays, causing conflict. It debuted at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival to positive reviews.
The first half of the film is quite effective. In this part, the story takes the form of a family melodrama with lots of compelling emotion. It is highly relatable and sympathetic, giving a very earnest portrait of addiction and its effects on the addict and their family. Unfortunately, the movie is unable to sustain this pace for its entirety.
The second half of the movie devolves into what is basically a revenge thriller. It almost makes sense within the greater context of the character arcs, but the tonal shift is so jarring that the movie basically falls apart. From that point, every time that the film tries to infuse emotion into the story, it comes off as artificial rather than earnest.
With this tonal shift also comes a drop in the believability of the movie. It becomes so contrived that it is almost laughable. One of the biggest issues with the film is that everyone in the story is involved with drugs in some way — either they are an addict, they are a dealer, or they’re someone who has dealt with an addict firsthand. This very well could be the movie’s point, but instead of effectively expressing this message, it instead draws you out of the film’s world.
There are some issues with the dialogue too. Certain scenes in the movie may leave you scratching your head wondering how the film got to this point. Perhaps the biggest issue with the dialogue is the frequent random transitions into big, dramatic monologues. The character played by Julia Roberts is particularly susceptible to this, and it gets annoying after a while.
That being said, the supporting characters are surprisingly well-developed. The two leads, played by Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, have some inadequacies due to the dialogue issues, but the other characters are actually quite interesting. The most well-written character in the movie is likely Ben’s sister. She represents the audience’s lens in viewing the events, and as such, is the most sympathetic character.
The ensemble is also very good all-around. Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges are both great, delivering strong performances despite working with a lackluster script. It is a bit frustrating that Hedges is beginning to be typecast, though. Although he does a good job in that type of role, it is hard not to feel that you are seeing the same thing over and over again. Courtney B. Vance and Kathryn Newton also give good turns in their supporting roles.
Overall, Ben is Back was a pretty disappointing film. It starts out very strongly, but takes a serious downturn in the second act, crashing by the end.
Ben is Back is now playing in select theaters and expands December 21.