Julia Roberts and Manchester by the Sea's Lucas Hedges play mother and son in a well-intentioned opioid-crisis drama that slides into histrionics.
Onscreen drug addiction feels especially harrowing these days. That’s probably as it should be (living through the reality is much worse). Still, between Bradley Cooper crushing pills with his boot in A Star Is Born, Timothée Chalamet’s doomed gaze in Beautiful Boy and now Lucas Hedges dragging his suburban family through another round of relapse in Ben Is Back, you may feel like you’ve graduated from a 12-step program yourself. Hedges’s work is as impressive as the self-excoriation done by those other actors; indeed, by playing someone who’s better at hiding it—and still letting us into Ben’s weakness and guilt—Hedges may have eclipsed them in certain ways. It’s a tricky performance with many layers.
Unfortunately, it comes in the most schematic and false-feeling of the three narratives, structurally speaking. Like an Albee-esque stage play, Ben Is Back occurs during a single event-filled Christmas Eve that would make even Macaulay Culkin’s head spin: A beloved dog will go missing, a pageant will be performed, drugs will be scored, a mass will be attended, parents will be pushed to their limits of patience, five golden rings. The miniaturization of scope ends up making everything feel intensely melodramatic, while the frenetic, breathless editing—capably realized by Ian Blume—transforms even the most innocuous kitchen argument into a drug-induced fit of mania. Julia Roberts, as Ben’s mother, Holly, should have been our conduit into the softer emotions of the screenplay, but she adds a layer of movie-star-ness that’s distracting, including several scenes of you-tell-’em-Julia sass that play like Oscar clips. Ben Is Back has seriousness in mind, but too much showmanship in the making.
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Cast and crew
Courtney B Vance