Movie Review – Ben Is Back
Writer-director Peter Hedges is a name that most people might not recognize. I certainly didn’t prior to this film. I’ve been aware of him but didn’t know it. Peter Hedges was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay for About a Boy (2002). However, people of a certain age might know him better as the writer of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, both the 1991 novel and the 1993 film adaptation. That film was the first Oscar nomination for Leonardo DiCaprio, which he achieved at the age of 19, making him one of the youngest male actors ever nominated. Peter Hedges didn’t direct that feature. Nor did he direct About a Boy, but after that he did start directing his scripts. This film is his fourth feature in the director’s chair. It features another actor who recently joined DiCaprio as one of the youngest Oscar nominees. This film features Peter Hedges’ son, Lucas Hedges as the titular character.
At the age 20, Lucas Hedges was nominated for the Oscar for his role in Manchester By the Sea (2016). The following year, he appeared in significant roles in two films that were nominated for Best Picture, Lady Bird (2017) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), so his face was on the scene and on the red carpets earlier this year. This year, however, Lucas Hedges continued his increased exposure by appearing in not one, not two but three films. His role in Boy Erased, opposite Nicole Kidman, is getting more attention and more awards consideration than this one, but Lucas Hedges is just as strong here as he is in all of his other films. In his short career or in just the span of two years, he has really proven himself more than his father has in 20 years.
Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich and Pretty Woman) stars as Holly Burns, a wife and mother of four children. Her first, two children are by one father. Those are her two eldest. Her two youngest children though are by another father, her current husband in fact. The whole film takes place all in one day. It all takes place on Christmas Eve. She’s preparing three of her children for their performance in a church pageant. She lives in southern New York, not far presumably from the Big Apple. She drives her three kids home from a morning or early afternoon rehearsal to find that her fourth child, her very eldest child who has been absent is now back.
Lucas Hedges co-stars as Ben Burns, the teenage or college-aged kid who is the aforementioned eldest child of Holly. He apparently used to live with his mom and his stepdad until it became necessary that he go to a drug rehab facility. He has an ominous look about him, as if he’s hiding something, even though for the most part he’s very gregarious and charming. At the same time, he makes his oldest sister and his stepdad nervous. He makes his mom nervous too, even though she tries to hide it with a smile and her love. The nervousness comes from the fact that he might relapse and steal from the family or put him or them into danger.
This movie comes in the same year as another film about this same exact premise called Beautiful Boy, starring another young Oscar nominee, Timothée Chalamet. The two films hit a lot of the same beats, but the thrust of both films become two vastly different things. Actually, Beautiful Boy doesn’t have much of a narrative thrust. That Chalamet film is more a slow burn and rumination on the frustration of a parent about his addicted child. This film has a thrust in terms of a plot that kicks some action into gear. That plot might seem corny or even cliché, but it helps to give the film structure and force conversations and characterizations that help to endear the audience to the two main protagonists that Beautiful Boy doesn’t really do.
It’s also interesting to compare the two films in what one does over the other. This film provides us with a back-story that helps us to understand how Ben became addicted. Beautiful Boy doesn’t. This film doesn’t ignore the racial dynamics that do occur as a result of the drug problem in this country, as well as the adjudication of it. Beautiful Boy does. Beautiful Boy almost revels in its white privilege. This film gives us other perspectives of other parents and addicts, which gives us some range in what is and what can happen in this scenario. Beautiful Boy doesn’t. It’s not to say that a film can’t be limited or focused as the Chalamet film is, but this one feels more comprehensive or more epic in a way.
It certainly feels more thrilling and exciting. It’s not to say that a contemplative drama isn’t or shouldn’t be utilized to tell this kind of story. It’s also not to say that a film that’s more a quiet, character study can’t work, but Hedges’ film is more heart-wrenching and engaging. I was even on the edge of my seat in certain scenes. In the moments when the drug dealer and local gangster, Clayton, played by Michael Esper (Trust and Shades of Blue), show up, some might roll their eyes, but it’s appropriately menacing.
Kathryn Newton plays Ivy Burns, the eldest sister to Ben and eldest daughter to Holly, as well as being Holly’s second-born. Newton also played opposite or close to Lucas Hedges in two of his other films, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. She also had a prominent and a very similar role in HBO’s Big Little Lies, which was one of the best TV series of 2017. Ivy though is probably the most skeptical of Ben’s return, skeptical in him being well-enough to be home as to be able to avoid relapsing. She snipes at Ben and Holly, but she loves them both.
Courtney B. Vance (The People v. O. J. Simpson and Law & Order: Criminal Intent) plays Neal Beeby, the stepdad to Ben and current husband to Holly. He’s a black man of a certain age who obviously makes enough to afford a very nice home in suburban New York. He’s probably the most concerned about Ben’s return and wants him to go back. However, it’s Christmas. He knows how much Holly wanted her son home for the holidays, so he wavers because he too clearly loves Holly and Ben.
Newton and Vance are amazing in this film and give fantastic performances, along with Esper and David Zaldivar who plays Spencer, a junkie who used to be friends with Ben. However, those performances are overshadowed by the work of Roberts and Lucas Hedges, particularly Roberts. This really is her movie. She’s a mother who goes from hopeful to worried to exasperated to distraught to completely devastated. They’re at times bigger emotions than what we got in Beautiful Boy, but Roberts is so terrific with every breath and look that she sells it incredibly well. We are with her in every moment.
Rated R for language and drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.