Man, Lucas Hedges is getting handed some pretty challenging roles this year. An abusive older brother, a gay kid in a gay-conversion camp, and now a second attempt at BEAUTIFUL BOY.
The story looks like it’s about a teenage boy who suddenly comes home to his family, seemingly dealing with his past drug addictions, but is revealed to not be completely clean and has mixed himself up with some bad people, all the while his loving mom trying to help him while her husband tries to tell her not to.
Here’s the cast. Starring, we have Julia Roberts (WONDER , MONEY MONSTER , SECRET IN THEIR EYES , and NOTTING HILL ), Lucas Hedges (BOY ERASED , THREE BILLBOARDS , MANCHESTER BY THE SEA , and upcoming films HONEY BOY  and WAVES ), Courtney B. Vance (ISLE OF DOGS , THE MUMMY , OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY , TERMINATOR GENISYS , and the upcoming UNCORKED ), and Kathryn Newton (BLOCKERS , LADY BIRD , and the upcoming POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU ).
Now for the crew. Writing and directing is Lucas’ father, Peter Hedges, known for DAN IN REAL LIFE (2007). Composing the score is Dickon Hinchliffe, known for LEAVE NO TRACE (2018), and upcoming films ABOVE SUSPICION (2018) and HOW TO BUILD A GIRL (2019). The cinematographer is Stuart Dryburgh, known for THE ONLY LIVING BOY (2017), ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016), and the upcoming MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL (2019).
Overall, this looks like it could be pretty good. Hell, keep the movie focused and on a single track, this could be better than BEAUTIFUL BOY.
This is my honest opinion of: BEN IS BACK
After a trip to church, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) and her family come home to find her rehab-prone son Ben (Lucas Hedges) has returned home, claiming to have been given the okay by his sponsor. Despite how shady his appearance seems, he agrees to a string of conditions that will allow him to stay home for Christmas, no matter how extreme they seem to him. Thinbs go relatively smoothly and the entire family goes to church for a play that Ben’s younger half-siblings are in. They come home to find their house broken into and only their dog missing. Blamed for the incident, Ben leaves to find the person who took the dog, aided by his desperate mother to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble or go back to old habits, despite the danger they both are heading toward.
Yup, this was a pretty good one. The ending sucks a fat one, but most of this flick is pretty damn solid.
Starting off easy, the acting from the two leads is awesome. Both Roberts and Hedges knock it out of the park, but let me just give a extra big hand for Hedges on delivering what I believe to be his career best performance thus far. As Ben, Hedges is given so much to work with compared to most of the movies that he’s had. When he shows up to his house and starts interacting with the family, he’s charismatic, he’s energetic, he’s funny, he’s got some serious personality to him. That’s not to say that you don’t feel like some of it is fake on some level. When he’s saying things, like, “My sponsor totally signed off on me being here for the holidays because I’m doing that well in my treatment” you know that he’s lying his ass off. But when you see him trying to help Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and singing to his younger half-siblings, you get the impression that he is legitimately there to try and make up for his past transgressions and be with his family for Christmas, even going so far as to really hope to get his younger siblings gifts that he personally wanted to pick out. It all feels genuine, real, with hints of subtlety that’s constantly keeping you guessing about what Ben is really doing here.
What I especially appreciated was how well the reunification scene was. Everyone sees Ben and Holly and the two kids are all happy to see him, but only Ivy seems to be completely suspicious. While Holly is awestruck like all hell, getting out of the car in tears and rushing to hug him, Ivy’s saying, “Mom, don’t,” clearly not happy to see him, even texting Neal (Courtney B. Vance). Ivy doesn’t even greet Ben. While he and Holly are hugging it out in a cocoon of emotions, Ivy’s just looking at him with laser death-rays. Even when they’re in the house and he’s all energetic and talking about this and that funny story, she basically remarks that he’s screwed things up for the family before. There definitely seems to be a checkered history here between everyone and I kind of like that.
I’m sure there’s going to be a few people who will argue with me on this next topic, so let’s set it up. Sprinkled throughout the story are little moments that the movie stops for to give us some back story. In the mall while Holly and Ben are shopping for presents, Holly encounters an old doctor that Ben used to see. At first, Holly is quite pleasant with both the doctor and his wife, but then the wife takes off for whatever reason and Holly points to Ben, asking if the doctor remembers him, to which he responds in the negative. But the the conversation takes a hard left turn and Holly reveals that this doctor prescribed pain medication that he claimed was non-addictive, but ultimately became the starting point for Ben’s drug abuse. She then looks the doctor in the eye and says, “I hope you die.” The wife comes back, and then everyone’s all cheery again. There’s another bit where Holly and Ben are at church for the younger siblings’ Nativity play and Holly catches sights of a woman who is eyeballing Ben. One of my favorites is one that’s followed up on over several moments in the movie. In one scene, Ben is discovered to have drugs on him, which he says he got from another person in rehab during a quick stint at a group therapy session in the middle of their shopping. Ben claims to have taken it as a means to help this person because the last time he didn’t help, someone died. A couple of scenes later, Ben and Holly are at the church for the younger siblings’ Nativity play and Holly sees a woman who is eyeballing Ben. Holly approaches this woman, and through some pretty subtle writing, we basically learn that Ben got this woman’s daughter on drugs, but she ended up dying, while he lived. I really like how tidbits of this information comes out and in different ways from different people, as we get a bigger picture of just how far-reaching the problem was and who it affected on different levels. I can see a few people wishing that this information came out all at once in some way, but I think the creative choice is different and welcomed.
But from the positives comes a few issues that I take with the story.
As much as I really like Ben as a character, the only time he truly falters is early on when he’s allowed to stay home for the holidays. In the car, he’s told that he never leaves his mom’s sight, he has to do a drug test, and this and that, but he doesn’t fight her on those terms. He agrees to everything. But then literally a second later, they go to the bathroom to start a urine test, he tries to close the bathroom door, but starts complaining that he can’t go in privacy. Two things, a second ago he was okay with the conditions and Holly didn’t seem to be bluffing about the strictness of the conditions, so what’s with the sudden proclamation of how “so not cool” this is? Second, what was she planning to do with that urine? Does she know how to go about studying the urine from home? This just makes so little sense and feels more like a power trip than a legitimate request from a concerned mother. My favorite part of this is a couple scenes later and she’s talking to Neal and he asks how the test went, to which she says that he’s clean. Oh sure, administer an on the fly drug test at home and we don’t even get to see the method, you know, in case some real parents out there facing a common similar problem could be clued in on how to do this at home. Invasive, I know, but in an environment where the addict is occasionally the the instigator to a lot of ill-feelings, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Did anyone else find that cemetery scene to be a little too extreme? I mean, she blew up at Ben back in the mall for having drugs that he didn’t get high off of. She’s been unflinchingly giving him the benefit of the doubt up to that point, but now that he’s questionably fucked up this one time, she freaks out and takes him to that cemetery and demands to know where to bury him. I get it, the drugs are suspicious as hell, but he clearly didn’t use it and he’s been sober for months. Not that I know if that’s worth patting oneself on the back for (I imagine with a strong desire to be better, it most certainly it worth it), I just feel like there’s no reason for her to go off the rails like she did. Perhaps they would have served the plot better later on, but not here and so early in the movie. And there’s also a scene where Ben is explaining how and why he got that girl who died hooked on drugs, and while he’s trying to own up to his shitty choices, Holly is actually trying to justify them by saying, “You just wanted her to feel good, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Uh, no, there’s so much fucking wrong with that! I know Holly is a doting mother who deeply loves her son, but at some point we have to accept that our children royally fucked up and have to have to accept that weight on their shoulders. Never justify shitty decisions that hurt other people. Own up to it and do better for yourself and those around you. My personal golden rule.
<<<SPOILERS – highlight to reveal>>> [ The time has come to talk about the cardinal sin of this movie: the ending. All movie long, Ben has been faced with triggers, temptation, and overcoming all of them, despite constant doubt thrust on him and all the other hardships that he’s faced. He stole his mom’s car to face Clayton (Michael Esper) alone, pulls off one last job for him to get his family dog back, completes it, gets the dog, and is offered a thing of drugs as compensation, to which he refuses. But then the movie makes a choice that I don’t understand. Ben takes the drugs, leaves his mom’s car on the side of the road with the dog inside… then he goes to a stranger’s barn to do those drugs. Holly eventually finds him and saves him, and then… roll credits. No, seriously, the movie just ends right then and there. Hell, you can argue that it didn’t even ended at all. The movie just stops. What the hell am I supposed to take away from this? That everything he and his family went through this past day, or so, was too much for him and he just snapped to do drugs? All the resistance of temptations, offers abound, all of them he’s turned his head away from, only now to revert back to old habits?! That’s like a runner about to cross the finish line, literally inches away, and just saying, “I can’t, it’s too far away” and quitting. Literally could have fallen over in exhaustion and the race would have been completed, he was that close. In retrospect, it almost takes effort to not finish the race. That’s the ending to this movie! Ben squared things away with Clayton, he got the family dog back, all he had to do was go home, get yelled at a little, finish off Christmas with the family, and continue with treatment at rehab. Like, this movie’s hopeful ending was practically gift-wrapped for the audience! But nope! Sorry, recovering drug-addicts, there’s no hope for you! All your hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity and temptation means nothing! You’re all going to die, so go to the cemetery and pick out a spot for yourself! Fuck you, movie! ] <<<END SPOILERS>>>
Overall, I think this movie is good. Dynamite performances from Roberts and especially from Hedges. It’s written well, great support characters, each with different reactions to the events around them, and feels like a much more focused story than BEAUTIFUL BOY with a better sense of escalating problems that hold an audiences’ interest. The only thing that I hate about this is the ending and a few questionable character choices and reactions here and there. This movie had the potential to be downright great, but botched it in the final five minutes. I’d be impressed if I wasn’t invested in the film as much as I was. As a recommendation, I still give a fairly high endorsement. This is certainly worth a trip to the cinemas as a matinee viewing, or on a discount day, or at a discount theater. It’s definitely worth seeing. Just get a stress ball ready for the ending.
My honest rating for BEN IS BACK: 4/5
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