‘Ben is Back’ reframes narratives of addiction

Peter Hedges’ film is darkly funny and honest


“Ben is Back” is darkly and subtly funny, as well as consistently and forcefully uncomfortable. 

Courtesy LD Entertainment

“Ben is Back” opens in a beautiful church on Christmas Eve, where Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) watches her daughter sing while her two small children run to hug her. Just as the scene approaches melodrama, Holly threatens to make her kids come to church more than once a year. 

This macabre humor typifies director Peter Hedges’ latest film, which screened at the Virginia Film Festival last Saturday in Newcomb Theater. The film stars the director’s son, Academy-Award nominated actor Lucas Hedges. Hedges plays Ben, a young man who has returned home from rehabilitation for his heroin addiction to see his family on Christmas. 

“Ben is Back” is darkly and subtly funny, as well as consistently and forcefully uncomfortable. Spurred by the theft of the beloved family dog, Ben and Holly take an unlikely journey on the night of Christmas Eve to find the scruffy Ponce, revisiting numerous suspects from Ben’s life during addiction. As Holly learns about Ben’s secret life of decrepit houses and frightening transactions, the audience does too. 

Different from other films about addiction, “Ben is Back” does not depict the beginning of a downward spiral into drug use or an addict covered in track marks, shivering at the point of no return. Instead, Hedges’ Ben is a young, healthy-looking man who has been sober for 77 days. Instead, the movie focuses on the lingering after-effects of addiction. Over the course of single day covered in the film, Ben’s addiction manifests itself both through his physical body and the ramifications of mistakes made during his drug use. 

Ben’s consuming struggles as an addict and Holly’s consuming struggles as a parent are at the forefront of each scene, providing an intimate image of a family and the depths of pain, hope, and disappointment. On this cold winter day, much of the action takes place in Holly’s car, where she and Ben talk and listen to and past one another. In this tight space everything seems to slowly unravel. There’s very little music in the film. The audible hum of the engine when Ben and Holly sit in silence in the car seems to say more, though. 

Despite its general restraint, a few moments in the film do feel overdone. In one scene, Holly visits the train tracks near the river, where she slowly walks through a clearing filled with ghost-like drug addicts who stand around small fires and slowly walk past her or hauntingly cackle. While the majority of the movie subtly engages the audience with slowly-building conversations, moments like this one feel inauthentic and seem to serve no purpose. 

Ben — whose mother, sister, step-father and step-siblings are loving and nurturing — offers proof addiction can and does happen to anyone. While the widespread opioid epidemic in the United States often appears in the news, the idea heroin addiction only affects individuals of low socioeconomic status and in middle-age persists. “Ben is Back” offers an example of a financially stable and well cared-for individual whose addiction started in his adolescence.  

Peter Hedges makes a handful of political points, both obliquely and more directly. Ben’s loving family offers proof that addiction can happen to anyone, subverting the overwhelming narrative that heroin addiction only affects individuals of low socioeconomic status. Later, Holly approaches Ben’s former doctor in the mall, blaming him for her son’s addiction after he over-prescribed painkillers following a snowboarding accident. Holly later screams at a pharmacist for not carrying an opioid overdose reversal drug, shouting her belief that the ease with which the pharmacy prescribes painkillers is to blame for the need of the overdose reversal in the first place.

The film is difficult to watch, filled with a constant sense of impending doom for both Ben and his mother. The tension begins in the second scene, as soon as Holly gets out her car to hug her son, and does not stop until the final shot of the movie. 

The strength of this movie comes from the compelling performances of Hedges and Roberts, who play off each other and depict a complex and beautiful mother-son relationship. This relationship is markedly realistic, in its tenderness, anger and strain to regain connection and control. Roberts expressess an unfailing, impossible love that knows no bounds and ultimately leaves her blind to the extent of her son’s dependency. 

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