Directed by: Peter Hedges
Written by: Peter Hedges
Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar
Released: January 31, 2019
Grade: B

Ben is Back

Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges are two young actors who have found themselves on strikingly similar career paths.  Chalamet is 23, Hedges is 22 and both were born and raised in New York City.  They each have an Oscar nomination under their belt – Chalamet for Call Me by Your Name and Hedges for Manchester by the Sea (a role that Chalamet also auditioned for).  They’ve even appeared in a movie together – competing for the affections of Saorise Ronan in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

The similarities don’t end there.  Several months ago, Chalamet played a drug addicted teenager struggling to connect with his father (Steve Carell) in the Amazon Studio produced Beautiful Boy.  Now, Lucas Hedges plays a similar character in Ben is Back, the story of a young man who has spent months in a rehabilitation centre and is now being helped by his mother (Julia Roberts).

There’s a family connection here given the film is written and directed by Lucas’s father, Peter Hedges, who has some worthy screenwriting credits to his name including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and About a Boy.  You might think that Peter always had his son in mind for the lead role but that wasn’t the case.  He had other actors in mind because he was worried about failing his son and “making a dud”.  It took the strong encouragement of Julia Roberts, who was really keen to work with Lucas, for Peter to make a final decision.

The timeframe here is narrow with Ben is Back spread across a 24-hour period covering Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Holly (Roberts) arrives home from church to find Ben waiting in the freezing cold outside the front door.  She didn’t think he’d be home for Christmas but after managing to stay “clean” for 77 days, his longest stint in more than two years, Ben checked out of the rehabilitation centre to make it home in time for this special day.

In a similar vein to Beautiful Boy, the focus here is more on the parent as opposed to the child.  Julia Roberts calls upon a wide range of emotions in illustrating the complexity of the situation.  There’s the initial excitement upon seeing her son but that quickly changes as she worries about his vulnerable nature and the chance of a relapse.  We see her rushing to clean out the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and having tough conversations with her husband (Vance) and daughter (Newton).

Holly agrees not to let Ben out of her sight (not exactly ideal when trying to plan Christmas Day festivities) and that serves as the catalyst for drama.  Ben is approached by people from his darker past and in the process, Holly is startled by secrets that Ben has long kept hidden.  You get the sense that she should have confronted her son many years ago about certain things but her kind, trustworthy nature was a barrier rather than a help.

The performances are great but Ben is Back does feel unnecessarily formulaic in places.  Early groundwork is laid for future subplots but it’s far too obvious.  The best example is a sequence involving another mother (Bay Jones) and the attendant at a drive-through pharmacy.  There are also a handful of head-scratching scenes, such as one where Holly confronts her son’s former doctor in a fast food court, that disrupt the film’s flow.

Ben is Back has some important things to say but the emotion of the situation doesn’t resonate as strongly as it should.