After Timothée Chalamet had his turn as a recovering addict trying his hardest to stay clean in Beautiful Boy, his contemporary Lucas Hedges decided to give it a try in Ben Is Back.
Hedges’ film, unlike Chalamet’s, focuses more on how difficult it is to break free of an addiction and the past life that comes along with it. Hedges’ Ben is trying his hardest to get back into the good graces of his family after causing them lots of hurt and pain, but those bridges are not easily burned. Once he returns home, his past demons begin to come back and haunt him. Unfortunately, this makes for an inconsistent tone and pace.
This film is at its best in the personal moments where Ben is working his way back into family life with his step dad, his siblings, and especially his mother. Julia Roberts plays the kind of mother that loves her son and wants to give him more chances, specifically due to the fact that he is her son and he deserves it for that reason. It effectively demonstrates the pain and conflict that addiction can cause to those close to the addict. As soon as Ben returns home, the entire family becomes on edge and arguments ensue. There is obviously some shred of good to hold onto, but there are not-so-subtle irreparable cracks in this family caused by Ben.
The film is at its worst, though, when it gets away from what it was doing effectively. There is almost a complete genre shift about halfway through and it becomes a crime and mystery film. It is still trying to show how deep these unfortunate roots have grown, but it does so at the cost of quality. The message was being portrayed well when the vehicle was a family drama and not a crime thriller.
But overall, this is a performance-driven film. It would not hold any water were it not for the two leads. Hedges does the best with what he can in the sometimes weak script. He plays at the subtleties of addiction to a high degree of effectiveness. Meanwhile, Roberts is the nonviolent Liam Neeson of the film – she will stop at nothing to make sure her son is safe. While it is no Beautiful Boy, Ben Is Back is still able to bring some heavy emotion and strong, personal messages.