By Karen Gordon
The screwed-up family that ultimately comes together in a comedic way, is a reliable formula for a Hollywood Christmas movie.
Ben is Back flips the formula around with an intense drama buoyed by some exceptional performances. Instead of a tangled web of family problems that unravels on its way to a happy ending, the family in this story looks happy off the top.
Julia Roberts is Holly, mom to a teenage daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and to Liam, (Jakari Fraser and Lacey (Mia Fowler), two adorable small children from her second marriage (the latter two are clearly named in honour of our Original-Cin colleague Liam Lacey).
It’s Chistmas Eve, and they return home giddy with cheer and get a major holiday surprise. Waiting for them on the stairs is their other child, the eldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges).
Holly seems overjoyed and maybe over-acting a little bit. As it turns out, Ben is in a rehab facility, and there was no arrangement for him to come home for the holidays.
The little kids are overjoyed to see their brother, but Ivy and her step-father Neal, played by Courtney B. Vance, are not.
Their surprise at seeing Ben back hints at something much more concerning than just an addiction problem. And Holly may be outwardly overjoyed, but it feels like she’s cheerleading and hoping the crowd will follow suit. And when she has a second, she hides all the prescription drugs and her good jewelry.
To assuage the family’s concerns, Holly lays out rules. Ben can stay for 24 hours and celebrate Christmas with them, but he must take a drug test and cannot be out of her sight at all.
It’s not just the family, that’s surprised to see Ben.
When the family comes back from Christmas Eve church services, the house has been broken into, a window smashed, the Christmas tree knocked over. The only thing taken is Ponce, the family’s beloved dog.
Ben knows it’s a message for him. But from whom? And about what. He rushes out to do whatever he has to to get Ponce back. But Holly won’t let him go alone. She forces him in the car and rides along as Ben dives back into his past and his secret life.
The movie is written and directed by Peter Hedges, whose forte has been romantic comedies, usually set in a family context, or about extended famlies. He wrote, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and About a Boy, and wrote-and-directed Pieces of April, Dan In Real Life and The Odd Life of Timothy Green.
Ben is Back is a distinct departure. Hedges is a good writer, and knows how to tell a cohesive story with well-drawn characters we can invest in.
As Ben, Lucas cast his son, Lucas. And the nepotism is completely justifiable. At 22, Hedges is already one of the leading actors of his generation. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and Critic’s Choice award for his role in 2016’s Manchester by the Sea. Ben is Back is the second film he’s been in this year. The other is Boy Erased for which he has a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. Lucas Hedges is a major talent and time after time turns in performances that are note perfect.
Julia Roberts gives a generous and nuanced performance. As an actor, she’s such a major star that it’s sometimes hard to overlook that and accept her the character, and she must be aware of that. But here, she gets to work, disappearing into the character and standing back and making room for Hedges to take center stage.
Her Holly is a spin on the usual mother with the unshakeable love for her son. Roberts has Holly at a nervous pitch. It’s an unwinnable situation, and so she quietly takes her character through a range of emotions, always with a level of exhaustion and confusion.
We don’t know what this family has been through when it comes to whatever Ben’s problems have wrought. But within her performance we can see that her love for him is a balancing act she feels that she has yet to get right. Taking care of him costs her and the rest of her family.
The acting is terrific. But the film has weaknesses. In the end what starts out as a family movie in tone and look, ends up feeling more like a stage play, a two hander between Holly and Ben.
It’s not a trajectory that feels like it fulfills the story that Hedges set up. But, even still, love within families is sometimes about taking one breath at a time and seeing what comes next. And in that sense, Ben is Back strikes the right notes.
Ben is Back. Written and directed by Peter Hedges. Starring Lucas Hedges, Julia Roberts and Kathryn Newton. Opens in Toronto Friday, Nov. 14.