Ben is Back

Lucas Hedges is such a talented young actor. Loved him in Manchester by the Sea, and his small role in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. His bullying brother in mid90s was one of the few good things about that movie, and he’s great underplaying a drug addict in this. Yet he’s gotten screwed over twice this year, with movies that came out earlier covering similar topics. As a gay teen being sent to conversion therapy in the terrific Boy Erase…many critics talked about another gay conversion movie that came out months earlier (The Miseducation of Cameron Post). With this film, everyone is talking about another “boy” movie, that came out recently — Beautiful Boy. Also unfortunate for Hedges is…that film was better.

Both movies had a parent that wasn’t using common sense, in hopes that their son had finally tackled his addiction. Both movies have scenes of the older brother playing and being so good with his younger siblings (Beautiful Boy it was in the summer sun; in Ben is Back, it’s frolicking in the snow).

The movie was written and directed by Lucas Hedges’ father Peter, and he was lucky to cast A-lister Julia Roberts. It’s just unfortunate that she’s miscast. Often times, she comes across as too snotty. Other than showing empathy in a few scenes, her facial expressions just don’t look right for the part (take for example, her scene walking through a homeless encampment).

It’s Christmas Eve when Ben (Lucas Hedges) returns on the doorstep, to say his sponsor thought it would be a good idea if he left the rehab facility to spend time with the fam. Of course, nobody with a brain would buy that. Certainly stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance, who’s terrific) doesn’t. But he gives his wife an ultimatum — he can stay for the day, but she has to watch him at all times. And as sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) points out in the commercial for the film, “If he’s okay, why are you hiding everything?”

Her character is needed, because she’s saying everything the audience is thinking. Neal has a tougher time doing this, because his wife explodes whenever he’s being the voice of reason. And it felt a bit like a wasted opportunity in the script, because anybody that’s been involved with a step-parent, knows you can sometimes hear phrases like “You’re not my real father!” Or, “Of course you don’t care as much, he’s not your kid.”

Now I’m not saying I wanted scenes like that, but there was just a small implication of that, and I thought that would’ve made for a more interesting family dynamic. Especially since early on, you wonder why Neal doesn’t just say “Ben goes back to rehab, or this marriage is over, because this jeopardizes our entire family.”

Every time this movie has an interesting scene, it’s usually spoiled by something else. It’s kind of like how it might be for a family that has a drug addict that does something positive, and then screws it up.

For example, I enjoyed the scene at an AA meeting. The mom is beaming in the background, listening to the humorous and caring words that flow from Ben’s pie (lie) hole. We know he’s on borrowed time, but she’s oblivious. And when a woman goes to talk to him afterwards, what she says just doesn’t work.

Another scene that could’ve been so powerful, has mom confronting a doctor with Alzheimer’s in a mall. It’s so horribly done that…you can’t help but hate her character at that point.

The second half of the movie has many compelling elements (which would’ve worked better if Beautiful Boy wasn’t so fresh).

The second half of the movie becomes a bizarre thriller that doesn’t seem to have a single plausible thing happen. We’re supposed to believe mom would go with son on a trek to find out who broke into their home. And we’re supposed to be shocked by the depravity. For example, they go to the home of one of his teachers, and mom is shocked to realize his involvement with her son. And it makes no sense why they would’ve even gone there, as he wouldn’t have been the suspect in the burglary. It also would’ve been much more interesting if, as the mom is watching her son meet with the drug dealers and losers that he dealt with, she was as perplexed as we were as to their place in Ben’s life. Were they dealers, customers, tricks…?

While on this bizarre trek, she obviously avoids calls from her husband. Again, why is he putting up with this? And, why is nobody willing to do the tough love routine with her?

There were scenes though, that worked nicely. One of them is when Ben is holding court at the dinner table, upon his return home. Mom laughs at every little thing he says like it’s the funniest anecdote ever. The sister looks on with disdain. That’s good stuff. I wanted more of those family dynamics.

There’s a scene where mom drags her son to a cemetery and screams, “Where do you want to be buried?!”

It reminded me so much of those cheesy scenes in ‘70s movies where a teenager is doing bad things and someone takes him to a jail to show him what life would be like there. It was preachy, and not as powerful as a scene should be that has rows and rows of tombstones.

Yet when she stand in the bathroom while he takes a drug test, despite his protests — you think she might finally be doing something right.

This film is a mixed bag, and it’s hard to figure out who will derive enjoyment from watching it.

2 stars out of 5.


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