‘Ben Is Back’ is an emotional roller coaster bolstered by Julia Roberts

Movie stars don’t have it easy. Allow me to talk down your bewildering face that just had its jaw hit the ground.

When their face becomes so familiar with film audiences, disappearing into characters suddenly becomes a higher climb; a true test of their talent and range. Tom Cruise constantly fights this. Will Smith nearly retired from it. It’s one thing to flip a box office hit where stuff explodes and the movie makes $100 million; it’s quite another to give a full-bodied performance without the help of latex and makeup. 

Julia Roberts is one of the longest-standing movie stars on the planet, and she blew me away in Ben Is Back, Peter Hedges’ new film. When it comes to overcoming the pre-existing knowledge that people know who you are and have watched you for years, Roberts can still stun a moviegoer. In this film, about a mother’s dedication to save her drug-addicted son (Peter’s son, the marvelous Lucas Hedges) over the course of 24 hours at Christmas, Roberts wears zero latex or extra makeup-and she doesn’t need it. The true pros in this business just need a good script, a willing director, and a character that scares them a little. 

Roberts’ Holly Burns is driving up to her house with her daughter, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), when she suddenly sees her son, Ben (Hedges), a young man the family (which includes Courtney B. Vance’s Neal) thought was still in rehab. But there he is, standing in their driveway the day before Christmas. The next 24 hours test Holly, Neal, and Ivy in a number of ways: Is Ben clean, alright, and safe for the family’s well-being?

It’s best that you go into this film knowing little more than that. Trust me. I’ve told you everything you need to know, all that can be found in the teaser trailer. Please avoid the full preview, because with Ben Is Back, the less you know about this film, the better. If you want to be completely floored when you watch this story unfold and allow the performances to connect, knowing too much can be poisonous. 

You may read a plot about a family getting over their child’s drug abuse, and immediately think of Felix Van Groeningen’s soulful yet gut-wrenching Beautiful Boy-but these films have one huge difference. In that true story, you know how the movie is going to end due to the addicted son having written the memoir on which the film is co-based. It’s a built-in spoiler that deadens some of the blow of the unexpected that comes with the movies.

In Ben Is Back, you have no idea what will happen to Ben, and Hedges the filmmaker (who also wrote the taut script) uses that to his advantage. You are in the seat of Holly, and Roberts takes you on one heck of a ride that you won’t soon forget. It’s not even tied solely to being a parent or child: if you know how toxic drugs and their world can be for a family, you’re all set. 

In the beginning, Holly is smiling and watching her other much younger kids participate in a holiday recital. She later sees Ben, and is totally undone by his presence. The sweet sauce in Roberts’ performance is how you initially think Holly is some doting and loving mom who thinks her damaged boy can do no wrong and will be alright, but soon come to find out this woman has many layers and emotions. Ruthless and fiercely loyal at the same time, Holly is a wicked concoction of a mom. 

Roberts gives a titanic performance that allows the viewer to see all of Holly’s virtues and flaws, but Hedges is nearly as good. With no offense to Beautiful Boy’s Timothee Chalamet, Hedges is one-upping him this awards season with two incredible performances as two completely different characters. Hedges played a real-life person in Boy Erased, but has to dig up Ben’s affliction and internal rage on his own here. Imagine being given a bag of rocks, a few sticks, and someone asks you to build a house. It’s a good thing he brought his dad along for the ride. 

The last thing Peter Hedges did in film was 2015’s playful if safely conceived A Good Dinosaur, and Ben Is Back represents just his fourth film behind the camera, following Pieces of April, Dan in Real Life, and The Odd Life of Timothy Green. The last film bombed at the box office and soured film critics, but thankfully he gets back to his family dysfunction roots here.

Ben Is Back is equal parts drama and thriller, but in the end, it always comes back to the former. The drama in this film wallops you, because you don’t know what will happen next. Each scene that comes around feels completely fresh for the genre. Another filmmaker would have kept the Burns Family drama tied to their house, but thankfully the movie takes it to the streets around 45 minutes in. 

You may be reading this review and think I am tip-toeing around spoilers, and I sure am. Once again, the less you know, the better. 

Just know this. The film nearly moved me to tears. Ben Is Back is one of the best films of 2018, because Hedges imbues this unconventional family drama with true emotion and lots of heart. You leave overwhelmed by what you saw and will need time to process it. Each character has dual sides and full arcs here. It’s not just Holly, Ben, and the rest; Newton and Vance imbue Ivy and Neal with a weary fear of what could come with Ben’s return, and attack it in different ways. This gives the film a power. 

This is assured work coming from a filmmaker who knows what he is doing and came back for a reason. Hedges’ direction is nimble. stylish without being overly confident, and he knows where to place the camera in this kind of story. For a guy with such few directing credits, he sure knows how to make a story work. That’s because Hedges’ script is a great one. There’s a reason he won an Oscar for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and wrote Hugh Grant’s best role in About A Boy. A classic actor’s showcase, the writing here reveals characters that sound familiar yet emerge as organic idealists for change yet never tip their hand in revealing where the story is headed. 

Hedges’ film is unlike anything you’ve seen in years. 

Just thank Roberts. She’s better than great here. The Academy Award winner shows why years and looks never get in the way of a true artist. Without any help or period piece aide, Roberts makes you think that Holly is the first time you are seeing the actress work. Without her, the film is a genre apartment with some shiny furniture. Roberts gives the film a beating heart. It’s a pleasure to see her take over a film again. As much as the story is about Ben, the real core of Hedges’ film is Holly and her struggle to understand how foregone her son is. The final scene in the film is a masterclass in acting, and Roberts shows us how it is done.

Technically, the film checks all the boxes. I admired the reluctance in saturating every scene with music, but Dickon Hinchliffe’s score hits all the right notes, and Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography rightfully paints upstate New York in grainy winter gray colors while Ian Blume keeps the film nice and tight. 

I liked the way Hedges didn’t beat us over the head with drug abuse or usage here. We’ve all seen how it is done and the aftermath, so Hedges wisely leaves Ben’s problems to our imaginations. Everything else is an exposed wire. 

With powerhouse work from its two stars, Ben Is Back proves that Peter Hedges is back, and has something to say. Go see this film and find out. I may be sitting next to you, soaking it all in again.

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