Ben is Back (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although occasionally adhering to a few tropes of drug addiction dramas, “Ben is Back,” written and directed by Peter Hedges, provides a realistic look at a specific person who decides to come home from rehab on his 77th day of being sober in order celebrate Christmas with his family. It is a sad story, so knowing when it comes to which elements to amplify when the heart-tugging moments come around, but it is worth seeing because it is willing to stare into the void of drug addiction.
It treats addiction like the disease that it is. Lucas Hedges plays Ben, the son who insists that he is doing much better and is healthier than ever, and Julia Roberts plays Holly as the mother who wants to make her son feel welcome but at the same time extremely wary that the most seemingly insignificant trigger may result in relapse. From the moment the family sees Ben standing near the front door as they pull up on the driveway, one could feel them getting ready to resume carrying the burden they had dropped temporarily. It is an astute decision for the director to keep the camera inside the car for a few more seconds before the would-be happy reunion, as if the family, even subconsciously, is bracing themselves for another rollercoaster ride. They are tired of Ben, but they must try not to show it.
Particularly intriguing is the decision to show how Ben has affected his community. There are dead bodies in the ground and their families are still in deep mourning, some very angry. And so when depressed parents despise Ben’s presence even at church, we may not know them but we empathize with them, too. The screenplay ensures that we are likely to feel how they are feeling if we were in their shoes. Even Ben believes he deserves some kind of punishment, welcoming it even. He feels sorry, deeply sorry, but the sentiment is too late. Corpses have been buried, money have been stolen, there are new addicts on the street thanks to Ben the former drug dealer.
Performances by Roberts and Hedges are highly watchable and emotional. Tight close-ups are employed generously, but the duo are up for the challenge. The latter shows Ben slipping bit by bit while the former portrays Holly as desperately trying to keep up with her fragile son, to ensure that 1) he maintains his sobriety and 2) she be there to catch him when or if he falls. (They made a deal that he could stay home for Christmas but must return to rehab the next day.) She watches him like a hawk, but, as drug addicts do, he manages to find ways to elude her. Even a few seconds matter. The picture makes a point that their relationship—the addict and the supervisor—is a lot of work, exhausting, untenable. And the story unfolds in just over a day. It communicates, with great clarity, a mother’s love for her child.
Carefully paced and unafraid of raw emotions, “Ben is Back” shows that the road to sobriety is labyrinthine—not just for the addict but also for the loved ones who care. Sometimes the right thing to do is the wrong thing when only one or two variables have changed. And sometimes you are just so tired of having to be the constant source of support that you hope that, against all odds, simply being there is enough. And when it isn’t, well, life has a way of pushing us forward.