Ben is Back (2018)

Julia Roberts plays a mother fighting to hold onto her relationship with her son in the face of his drug problems in writer/director Peter Hedges’ drama Ben is Back.

A Mother’s Love

by Chris Drew

Ben is Back

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

We meet the Burns family on Christmas Eve with Holly (Julia Roberts) lovingly supporting three of her children at Christmas play rehearsal at church. Returning home they are shocked by eldest sibling Ben’s (Lucas Hedges) unannounced return from rehab.

While Holly is thrilled, sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and stepfather Neal (Courtney B Vance) are immediately wary, burnt by Ben’s previous lapses, as details of earlier stints in rehab are teased out. Neal, concerned for his and Holly’s two younger children, makes a telling observation about what Ben’s actions could have led to if he were black.

Under Holly’s supervision, Ben is given a day to prove himself. We follow the pair connecting and rebuilding their relationship until Ben has to clean up, and atone for, an act against the family and the stakes are raised.

There are highly effective moments; Ben oversharing in front of Holly at an AA meeting, Holly quietly unleashing blame on an elderly doctor. A moving scene where Holly comforts a bereaved mother has deeper significance later on.

As the drama escalates there are genuinely tense sequences but also a number of all-too-familiar settings for drug-related stereotypes; dealers at a rundown bungalow up a back road, meetings in the backroom at a pawn shop, junkies shooting up down by the river.  

Directed by his father, Hedges is excellent as the titular Ben. Tired, pale and gaunt, Ben is torn between his love for his family and desire to stay clean and the torment of temptation that drugs still hold for him.

Effective support comes from Newton as she allows Ivy’s love and concern for her brother to shine through after initial distrust. As Neal, Vance is given little to do other than look infuriated and be concerned at the end of a telephone.

But the reason to watch is Roberts. Always one of the most watchable actors, as Holly she fills the screen with anguish, pain and rage, displaying the depth of a mother’s love, desperate to save her son and keep her family together.

With this and Wonder (2017), it is becoming evident that Hollywood’s Pretty Woman is turning into film’s warmest mother.

Ben is back is released on 15 March 2019 in the UK

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