Ben Is Back (NC16)
103 minutes/Opens Feb 28/3.5 stars
The story: In a picture-postcard suburban home just before Christmas, mother Holly (Julia Roberts) is shocked but happy to find that her son Ben (Lucas Hedges) is home from the drug rehabilitation centre to which he has been sent but not for the first time. His step-father Neal (Courtney B. Vance) mistrusts Ben, believing that the recovering addict is using family leave as an excuse to seek drugs. Holly allows Ben to stay for one day, but on one condition: That he never leave her sight.
Deja vu, part two. This week, a second Oscar-bait story about royals on a rampage enters cinemas, and there is also this movie, an account of a parent and her addict son that will remind viewers of Beautiful Boy (2018).
The similarities are surface-deep, thankfully. Beautiful Boy is based on a real and ongoing relationship and takes place over several years. This story is fictional and takes place over two days. It is based on writer-director Peter Hedges' friendships with people who are addicted to painkillers and interestingly, it stars his son Lucas in the titular role.
Side note: In a real-life A Star Is Born story, the older Hedges, who has an Oscar nomination for adapting the Nick Hornby book About A Boy into a screenplay for the 2002 movie starring Hugh Grant, had been in a creative slump. Meanwhile, his 22-year-old son is now a force in indie drama, appearing in acclaimed works such as Manchester By The Sea (2016) and Lady Bird (2017). When his father's screenplay for this project made the rounds, generating heat, the younger man reportedly asked to join the team and be treated as just another actor.
Both Lucas Hedges as the conniving charmer of a son and Roberts as his momma bear of a maternal figure give pitch-perfect performances.
Movies about suburban American families shattered by outside forces suffer from an excess of sentimentality intended to show how relatable and "normal" the home is before all hell breaks loose. But film-maker Hedges trusts enough in his actors and audiences enough to let that happy home business exist in the background - he does not feel the need to flesh out every detail of this mixed-race family.
The first half of the film is a road movie. Mother and son go Christmas shopping and in so doing travel the mean streets he used to walk as a junkie and a dealer. The story weakens when it too obviously packs in newsy details about the opiate crisis. It is a netherworld where parents carry resuscitation kits just in case their children overdose. Where doctors, not drug dealers, are the agents of destruction in their communities, and where 24-hour pharmacies sell injection kits with nary a raised eyebrow, but baulk at carrying overdose first aid units.
The story then takes a twist that is, in a word, stupid. It turns the second half into a thriller. The climax is a well-crafted cat-and-mouse game and is perfectly enjoyable on its own. But one wishes it had not been triggered by so silly a premise - one that jolts the viewer out of the neat little streets of a middle America blighted by needles and devastated by the deaths of young adults.