Director: Peter Hedges
Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton
I have a weakness for addiction movies. Drug addicts, alcoholics – I see them on screen and instantly empathize. Not so much with the addicts themselves, but with their disease, their diminishing personality…and their families, the people who love them. It's a hopeless, horrible situation for the families – to see their darlings struggle, cheat, lie, fade, die slowly. Indian movies haven't learned how to confront addiction honestly enough yet. American movies, somehow, perhaps due to a largely hands-on culture of excesses with nowhere to escape, always have. It is an epidemic that they acknowledge, and one that they often magnify – rather than exploit – through storytelling.
So I brace for impact when Peter Hedges' Ben Is Back eases me into a small, snowy American town on Christmas Eve. It begins with the family. Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) is a mother. She ferries her kids – her biological daughter (Kathryn Newton, as Ivy) and her second husband Neal's (Courtney B. Vance) twins – from Church to home. They are in a comfortable routine. Until they see Ben (Lucas Hedges) waiting at their doorstep. Ben, her "problem child," the oldest of the lot, is on a break from rehab. She is happy to see him; Ivy and Neal aren't. I see Ben, his efforts to look sincere and sober, 77 days clean, the distrustful gazes he attracts, and I think of my father, who had long struggled with the bottle. I think of the lies he couldn't control, the image he couldn't repair. I see Ben's desperation to be at home, the place where he once made everyone suffer, and I think of my father's 'mask' after rehab, and the way I was wary of his claims and promises. In Holly I see myself – someone who wants to believe in him, no matter what the others say.
My eyes moisten when, in an incredible scene of truth, Ben breaks down on hearing his sister's voice leading the Christmas choir. I can sense that Ben feels guilty here – for trying to drag them down again, for all the hell he put them through, for expecting them to trust his fleeting sobriety again. A carol breaks him. But by now, I'm frustrated with his mother, Holly, for being so paranoid around him. I was never so overbearing. In her manic pursuit of being the heroine of his story, is she the one who drove Ben to a heroin habit?
What makes this film different from others with similar themes is this: Ben Is Back is about two kinds of addiction – drugs, yes, but also motherhood
This is when it becomes clear that Ben Is Back isn't about those like me. It is bigger than that. I was just a son, in no real position to help an adult. Holly is a parent again, for 24 hours. A parent in the position to rescue a boy that cannot be rescued. A parent looking for that final fix of caregiving. A mother who cannot let go, even if letting go might be in the best interest of everyone involved. What makes this film different from others with similar themes is this: Ben Is Back is about two kinds of addiction – drugs, yes, but also motherhood. It is about how the two "conditions" trigger, and are reflected in, one another.
Ben isn't the one shivering with withdrawals or being nervy throughout the film; Holly is. She shadows him, follows him everywhere, and insists on standing at the bathroom door even when he is peeing. He has one day with them, and she feels responsible for this one day. When Ben shrugs and remarks that, "this is humiliating," her answer is prompt: No, this is love. The addiction of love, especially maternal love, is un-filmable, but Julia Roberts – whose advancing age has brought out the artist in her – does a darn good job of convincing us that her drug has no antidote. There is no cure to her feelings for Ben, her son. She is delusional and irrational, defying the world to follow her impulses. Naturally, it's only Ben who understands her. Naturally, they are an underdog team.
The choice of Christmas as a time is crucial to the film's ambitions. A festive atmosphere where everything is white, pure, and secrets are temporarily giftwrapped – the town, which has clearly seen the worst of Ben, is unrecognizable in this season. There are tears and resentment, but the fairy lights protect him. The snow hides those dark allies. The breeze drowns out the whispers. The film also cleverly designs the family in a manner that highlights Holly's disease. Take the people at home: Ivy is Ben's sister, which makes her the most affected, at least on a generational level, out of everyone. She is who Ben could have been. She is not cynical, but she is her mother's voice of reason – the logic needed amidst the emotions.
Lucas Hedges has a way of infusing a humour into inherently dark tales – the kind that millennial teenagers brandish, mostly as defense mechanisms, to judge the adults around them
Neal is not Ben's real father, which, as brutal as it sounds, makes his a more practical gaze. Ivy and Ben use the term "they" when they refer to Neal and his kids – the chasm is still fresh. Neal gets angry with Ben the way a friend would get disappointed – he calls him out for his bullshit, and even calls him a "drug addict" when the film becomes a mother-son survival thriller in the final act. Unlike A Star Is Born, where the girl's manager quietly tells off her recovering husband to re-trigger his spiral back downward, Neal's caustic words to Ben aren't nasty for narrative effect. Ben knows he needs a voice like that. Most importantly, Neal is a black man. He has the no-nonsense perspective of one – a spanner in the wheels of Hollywood's White-Saviour syndrome. "If he were black, he'd be in prison," he initially tells Holly, lending perspective to the sociocultural significance of Ben's situation. He might sound like the villain in context of the story this film chooses to tell, but Neal is generally a good man – a device without whom we might never have noticed how addicted, how far gone, the heroic mother and sensitive son are.
Lucas Hedges has a way of infusing a humour into inherently dark tales – the kind that millennial teenagers brandish, mostly as defense mechanisms, to judge the adults around them. He did it in Manchester By The Sea as well as Boy Erased. Here, he is at the center of a raging tragedy, but Ben is almost disturbing for how funnily self-aware he is. We can tell when he wants us to know that he is lying, or acting, or fooling his alert mother. What distinguishes this performance is perhaps the fact that his father, Peter Hedges, is the director.
If you observe closely, Ben has this shyness, this sense of shame, of being the way he is in front of the woman he loves the most. Or, in Lucas' case, in front of the man who made him the man he is. The camera follows him with a quiver, with an uneasiness of not knowing what to expect next. The chemistry is palpable. The tenderness can't be written. There is, after all, no stronger addiction than parenthood.