TIFF Review: ‘Ben Is Back’

Published 10:03 am Monday, January 7, 2019

by Lauren Bradshaw

I wanted to repost my “Ben is Back” review from the Toronto International Film Festival, not only because it was one of my favorite movies of the year, but it is also one of the most important, and I want to make sure it gets all of the publicity possible.

Thankfully, Hollywood has started to focus its attention more and more on the drug crisis, which has become an unstoppable epidemic these last few years. This is even more apparent with both “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy” premiering at TIFF this year. Some are going to be tempted to compare these two films like they can’t exist on their own, but I for one loved both for their powerful messages and incredible performances. I found it especially enlightening that in both films, especially “Ben is Back,” the filmmakers address that dealing with substance abuse financially and through the legal system/rehabilitation process is hard enough for a rich white family, so it’s hard to imagine what it would be for a similar situation in a lower income family.

“Ben is Back,” written and directed by Peter Hedges, focuses on how a mother’s love can withstand even the most dire of circumstances and how substance abuse can tear a family apart. When prodigal son Ben (Lucas Hedges) returns home to surprise his family on Christmas Eve, he is met with anxiety more than joy. Ben has a history of drug abuse, selling and taking opioids, and on his last stint at home caused serious damage to himself and his family.

This time, Ben says, he is sober and is going through the steps he has practiced in rehab. While his mother, Holly, (Julia Roberts) is happy to see her son and hopeful that he is indeed clean, the rest of the family is not so sure. Over the next 24 hours, Holly makes it her mission to not let Ben out of her sight so they can have a happy and healthy Christmas holiday … but the skeletons in Ben’s closet aren’t going to make it easy.

Julia Roberts gives one of the best performances of her career; so much so, in many of the scenes it doesn’t even feel like she is acting. Although on the surface, Roberts character is a strong mama bear, internally she is struggling with how to best protect her son from relapsing; she navigates this delicate balancing act magnificently.

The role reminded me of her Oscar-winning performance in “Erin Brokovich,”  which showcased Roberts’ innate ability to give a multilayered performance ranging from a tough, no-nonsense fighter to a do-gooder with a huge heart, who wants to defend the weak from life’s treachery.

Lucas Hedges, who had a great year also starring in “Boy Erased” and mid90s at TIFF, is fantastic in this film as well. It seems Hedges is becoming Hollywood’s go-to actor for these more sensitive and heart-wrenching performances. And it is his charisma and ability to draw sympathy that is perfect for this role. Even as an audience member, I found myself relating to Roberts, unable to tell whether I could trust Hedges’ character or not.

“Ben is Back” finds a way to take a widespread issue like opioid abuse and present it in an intimate manner, which I’m sure hits home for many that have faced this issue in their own lives, but also makes it relatable to those that have been lucky enough not to face this issue personally. It is equal parts compelling, nerve-wrecking, and stressful, carried by a fantastic script and some of the best performances of the year. And for all of you animal lovers (like me,) don’t worry! No harm comes to the dog.

My Review: A

LAUREN BRADSHAW is a lover of all movies, even the bad ones. Follow her on twitter @flickchickdc. She grew up in Courtland, graduated from Southampton Academy and doubled-majored in foreign affairs and history at the University of Virginia. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.