Ben Is Back (2018)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA, 2018.  , , .  Screenplay by .  Cinematography by .  Produced by Peter Hedges, , , .  Music by .  Production Design by .  Costume Design by .  Film Editing by

Julia Roberts is preparing for Christmas Eve with husband (Courtney B. Vance) and children when a surprise turns up on her doorstep: her eldest son (Lucas Hedges, son of the film’s director Peter) is supposed to be in rehab for drug addiction but has apparently taken the day off to spend with his family.  She is delighted, her daughter (Kathryn Newton) is terrified and the toddler twins are excited that their big brother is home, but his presence is deemed a bad idea, it’s not good either for him or the rest of the group that he be anywhere other than the very expensive clinic that he has been doing so well in.

Roberts quickly switches from cheerful optimism to Rambo-level determination, declaring that he has one day to spend with them before she drives him back to the hospital, during which she insists on supervising his every move.  He agrees, but over the course of the day and night of shopping for clothes and Christmas Eve mass, Hedges Junior’s past disgraces keep coming back into the picture and threaten his family’s safety; before long, Roberts is driving across town in the middle of the night, surprising herself with the lengths she’s willing to go to recover her son, give him a chance at redemption and make her family safe again.

Hedges Senior sets up a fascinating narrative that gives free reign to Roberts’ stellar performance, one in which her glamorously chatty personality shines in some pretty bold moments (like a very audience-pleasing confrontation with her son’s doctor in a shopping mall food court), but the film never goes as deep as it should.  Her long night of the soul should be a much darker and terrifying experience, and her constantly changing tactics for dealing with her kid is meant to be the portrait of a desperate woman caught between logic and motherly protection, but the shallow storytelling comes across as erratic writing instead.

It’s got some rich mother-son conversations that are much grittier than you’d expect a film on this level to possess, but the world of drug dealers is never convincing and it’s hard to believe that the young star, who has none of the intensity of his performance in Boy Erased, ever put anything stronger than Bailey’s in his coffee.

Toronto International Film Festival:  2018

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