Ben is Back (2018)

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Critic Consensus: Refreshingly understated, Ben Is Back subverts family drama stereotypes - and provides a forum for terrific performances from Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts.

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19 year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) unexpectedly returns home to his family's suburban home on Christmas Eve morning. Ben's mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), is relieved and welcoming but wary of her son staying clean. Over a turbulent 24 hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother's undying love for her son is tested as she does everything in her power to keep him safe. Ben is Back also stars Courtney B. Vance (The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) and Kathryn Newton (Lady Bird).

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Critic Reviews for Ben is Back

All Critics (143) | Top Critics (37)

"Ben is Back" is one of those awards season films that looks on paper to be a slam dunk: Mother and child relationship, drugs and drama is a cocktail for Oscar gold. In this case, the dunk is a dud.

Jan 10, 2019 | Rating: D+ | Full Review…

Unfortunately, by adding cumbersome elements to the narrative, it ultimately detracts from the core human story and causes the viewer to leave the film dissatisfied...

Dec 30, 2018 | Rating: 2.5/4 | Full Review…

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.

Dec 27, 2018 | Rating: 3/5 | Full Review…

This is an intimate, incredibly tense drama about a troubled family battling raw emotional pains, a bare-bones and bare-knuckled look at the destructive powers of addiction.

Dec 20, 2018 | Rating: 3.5/4 | Full Review…

The movie's real achievement lies in Roberts's performance, which is possibly her best. Holly is incandescent with worry. She's good and kind and intimate.

Dec 19, 2018 | Full Review…

Roberts... takes hold of this movie like a lamppost in the winter darkness.

Dec 17, 2018 | Rating: 3/4 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Ben is Back

MOTHER, DRUGS & SPEED - My Review of BEN IS BACK (4 Stars) On the verge of giving up his filmmaking career, Peter Hedges (PIECES OF APRIL, WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?) wrote himself out of that hole with the exceptionally moving BEN IS BACK and found himself in the odd position of having to convince his young, Oscar-nominated son Lucas to change his mind and star in his movie. It helped that Julia Roberts, who had already signed onto the film, had also pushed hard for Lucas' participation. Luckily it all worked out as the film features a blazing chemistry between these two actors at the top of their games. Lucas plays Ben Burns, who surprises his family by taking an early leave from rehab and appearing at their doorstep at Christmas time. While his mother Holly (Roberts) appears overjoyed, her daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and second husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) show much more trepidation. Hedges economically doles out pieces of their history, enough to get the idea that Ben has a ruinous past and hasn't earned back their trust. Even Holly hides away the prescription medications in her bathroom cabinet. The first act of the film plays with the push-pull of the relationships, offering moments of levity which turn on a dime into heightened emotions. It's like an episode of THIS IS US, but with rawer camera work and, of course, two lead performances filled with a lived-in urgency. Around the halfway mark, however, the film turns into a ticking clock thriller of sorts, with the Burns' home ransacked and their family dog missing. Imagine the movie GOOD TIME with Robert Pattinson, which like this was also told in real time, married to the famous SAVE THE CAT concept. Holly, refusing to abandon Ben, follows him into the heart of darkness to find their pooch and show she will never give up on her son. Their journey takes them into a pawn shop, a drug den and even a the doorstep of a school teacher who did not have Ben's best interests in mind. It's scary stuff, but I do wish the gay intimations here, which include pedophilia, didn't make Holly puke. Can we please retire this offensive trope? I say this because BEN IS BACK has power to spare, and I hate to see a questionable choice cloud anyone's experience. I've long maintained that actors like Roberts and Sandra Bullock have excelled in these current phases of their careers where they get to tap into their anger. Roberts, who opens the film with her beatific smile, soon drops the facade to give one of her career best performances. She tears through this role with passion, intensity and fury. A scene in which Ben jokingly (or maybe not) asks why his mother didn't check his shoes for drugs. On the other side of a dressing room door, Roberts brilliantly goes from a humorous reaction to sheer panic, the whole history of her fraught relationship with her son splayed out before us. She plays one ferocious mother. Lucas, for his part, navigates his tricky role so well, going from confidence to self-loathing in the blink of an eye. What could have been a throwaway reaction shot of him watching his sister sing in church becomes aa perfect study of pride, guilt and empathy in the span of a few seconds. Although every moment of this film contains a high level of dread, you come to care for this mother and son so deeply and urgently. Although I could quibble with some plot mechanics toward the end, especially the ease with which one character obtains something from a drive-thru pharmacy, but so much care has gone into investing in these characters, that, like Holly herself, I would follow Ben anywhere. Peter Hedges has taken what could have been a tiny, indie about addiction and put the audience on the edge of their seats. You find yourself caring for Ben while never quite trusting him and never quite knowing his end game. Coming from a family which struggled with addiction, Hedges knows firsthand exactly how to articulate the confusion, the false hope, and the agony of it all. He proved in PIECES OF APRIL how to succeed with a real time structure, but with BEN IS BACK, he knows it can also make you care, make you cry, and make you forget to breathe.

Glenn Gaylord
Glenn Gaylord

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