Ben Is Back review: Julia Roberts is back on the big screen as well in this family-predicament/ crime drama revolving around her drug addict son (Lucas Hedges), who returns home unexpectedly on Christmas Eve.

Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Ben Is Back review [TIFF]

It’s a simple set-up, and filmmaker Peter Hedges sets his story over just 24 hours during the holiday build-up. Lucas Hedges is the returning Ben, who we learn early on that he has been away at a rehabilitation centre where he remained sober for a few months. His sponsor has recommended that he returns home for Christmas to spend time with his family, Holly (Roberts), Ivy (Kathryn Newton), step-siblings Liam and Lacy, and his stepfather Neil (Courtney B. Vance), the man who has stretched himself financially to arrange Ben’s latest batch of therapy.

There’s obviously a history here, Julia skeptical, but pleased that her son has returned, something not shared by Ivy or Neal, who suggest that he is returned to his rehab facility immediately. All agree eventually that Ben can stay, until the end of Christmas Day, but he must be monitored at all times – by his mother – so that he can avoid any opportunity to relapse, or get into any trouble, something that is obviously going to be pretty much unavoidable.

There’s a plot device that kicks in about a third into Ben Is Back which switches the tone of the film completely. The first half is a very decent character study, focusing on the relationships between the central characters, and the fact that we don’t know too much makes proceedings all the more intriguing. Roberts holds everything together, her performance one of her strongest for many years, and it’s great to see her back on the big screen in a meaty role. Hedges, who is in no less than three movies at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where we viewed the film, is also on top form as the tortured titular character. The rest of the supporting cast are also decent, Courtney B. Vance not as present as much, but manages to deliver the goods (as always) nonetheless with his restricted screen time.

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When the story shifts in the second half, proceedings become less interesting. The gear shift turns the film into a kind of whodunnit, the plot relying on a weak catalyst – the family dog going missing when they return to their home on Christmas Eve, Ben having to think back to who he may have pissed off to locate him before the rather upset kids wake up on Christmas morning. While the film keeps you absorbed in what is played out – just about – it can’t quite match the affinity I had with the story for the earlier parts of the film.

Ben Is Back just about works because of the relationship between Roberts and Hedges on-screen Their chemistry as mother and so works and makes the all too predictable final frames just about manageable as the story just about steps into cliché mode with its cartoon local gangsters and street rats. None of this would have been a problem if the first half wasn’t as interesting an involving, but the film comes across in a way that it can’t quite make out which kind of film it wants to be. We’d have been happy with either, but maybe not both.

Definitely worth a watch, if only for the dynamite return of Roberts, and Lucas Hedges always reliability, him proving that he’s still on the path of becoming one of the brightest, most diverse and indeed best actors of his generation.

Ben Is Back review by Paul Heath, September 2018.

Ben Is Back was reviewed at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Click here for all of our coverage.

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Ben Is Back