Usually the independent film scene is the place to be if you want to avoid movies feeling too repetitive, but there’s an exception to every rule. “Ben Is Back” is the story of a dedicated parent trying to help their drug-addicted son, the latter of whom is played by a breakout actor who found success with the studio A24. One could easily confuse “Ben Is Back” with “Beautiful Boy”, a 2018 movie that tells the story of a dedicated parent trying to help their drug-addicted son, the latter of whom is played by a breakout actor who found success with the studio A24. One could also confuse the movie with 2018’s “Boy Erased”, which stars the same actor as “Ben Is Back” and follows a struggling son whose parents—you know what, this is the one where Lucas Hedges plays an addict. That’s that.
The family ties aren’t just in front of the camera. The director behind “Ben Is Back” is Lucas’ father Peter Hedges, the screenwriter behind “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “Dan in Real Life”. Hedges brings his penchant for troubled family dynamics to his newest effort: “Ben Is Back” looks not only at how addiction destroys addicts, but also at how addiction destroys addicts’ families. Ben leaves rehab to surprise his family on Christmas Eve, but the stunt only delights his mother (Julia Roberts)—his sister and stepfather immediately become worried that Ben will relapse outside of rehab.
The performances ring true and ring powerful from the outset. Lucas Hedges gives his most humane performance since “Manchester by the Sea”, enveloping Ben within the wrenching grey area of simultaneously being abuser and abused. Every moment is a battle for Ben, and Hedges evokes a great deal of pathos through tortured looks and body language alone. Julia Roberts dominates the screen with the emotional force she’s always had this side of “Erin Brockovich”, epitomizing the power and love of a worried mother. By virtue of the acting ability on display, the comedy and tragedy of watching these two navigate Ben’s addiction together is nearly Shakespearean.
The movie’s plot structure is not so commendable. The entirety of “Ben Is Back” takes place over one day, and in order for the stakes to rise as the plot goes on, the movie meanders through long sequences that distract from the familial focus. Showdowns with drug dealers may make for a lively third act, but they feel contrived after the muted relational dynamics that define the movie’s initial conflicts. The short time frame does give “Ben Is Back” an edge over the similarly themed “Beautiful Boy”, though: where the latter movie depicted the recurring rise and fall of drug addiction, “Ben Is Back” makes one cycle feel like an eternity. There’s more time to collect false hope before submitting to the pattern of fatalism.
“Ben Is Back” may not be a masterclass of drug addiction indie, but it’s worth seeing for its central performances alone—just make sure to bring a box of tissues and a watch to check every once in a while.