Ben Is Back, written and directed by Peter Hedges, has at its core a meaningful and powerfully explored set of central characters. Much of the first half of this film brilliantly follows a group of characters who are written and acted in a way that has them feeling authentic and raw in who they are. I found myself completely sucked in by their dysfunctional family, that from the outside seems to be coping but from the inside is barely holding on. I only wish the film had continued with it throughout, rather than straying off into a primarily plot driven experience where the meaning and the emotion seemed to take a back seat. So, let’s explore all that this film has to offer and see if its latter half does an amount of damage that makes it not worth watching. Onto the review.
Ben Burns – played by Lucas Hedges – shows back up at his family home on Christmas Eve, after being away for some time in rehab for drug addiction. Holly – played by Julia Roberts – his mother, is of course ecstatic to see him, but some of his other in family members are not so enthusiastic (and with good reason). The family Christmas is soon sent into a tail spin and the lives of both Ben and his mother are soon put in danger. But the will of a worried mother won’t stop either of them from going down the paths they soon find themselves on.
What pulled me into this film and held me there for the majority of its journey, was the compelling selection of characters on offer and the turbulent dynamics between them. It’s primarily the relationship between Ben and his mother Holly that fuels the film, but that doesn’t stop the film from layering in secondary characters that help in building out the tortured relationship between Ben and Holly.
Through the tertiary interactions that Holly may have with her husband, Neal – played by Courtney B. Vance – (Ben’s stepfather), we learn a bit of the history that helps to further define the trouble that Ben has brought upon the family. Or through the passing comments made by Ivy – played by Kathryn Newton – (Ben’s sister), we learn of the hidden impact the events of the past few years has had on Holly and her family emotionally. What I’m getting at here is that Peter Hedges uses his characters wisely. He pulls us into their world through their outwardly pleasant family appearance, and then with the introduction of Ben, we learn just how damaged the family is, and not through them directly telling us, but through how they as a unit respond to the catalytic event of Ben’s return.
It was this handling of all of the characters and not just the primary leads, why I initially found myself so drawn into the film, and eager to dive deeper into what exactly made this family the way it was.
What went on to keep me invested and caring about the direction of the Burns’ Christmas was the self-destructive relationship between a mother – who was barely holding it together emotionally and who seemed like she might give up on everything at any moment – and a son who was successfully lying to himself and unsuccessfully lying to everyone else around him. Watching as these two opposing forces tried to navigate one another and try to find a cohesion with the other, only to fail in significantly worsening ways, made for a first half of a film that I was utterly hooked by.
It also helped that Lucas Hedges as always brought his all to the role. Timothée Chalamet may be the indie darling that everyone’s familiar with, but it’s Lucas Hedges who consistently picks roles that test him and who continually gives over a performance that floors you. His recent performance in ‘Boy Erased’ being a prime example. But it’s Julia Roberts who really delivers something incredible. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a raw and brutal performance from her. She goes to the darkest places (mentally) with her character, and despite being slightly afraid of the character, I couldn’t stop being totally hooked by her every action… her every word. If this is the beginning of a renaissance for Roberts and her career – much like Nicole Kidman has had in recent years or McConaughey had a short time back – then I’m very excited to have been there at the beginning of it.
But despite the incredible work by the actors, there was a particular aspect to this film that did cause me to begin to lose my emotional investment for the film, and I feel it significantly took away from a script and an experience that was so brilliantly focused on characters and their explosive, potent interactions. The latter half of the film became primarily plot driven, to the point that the more it dragged on, the less I cared. Once the film put its focus on said plot and then had it be the main driving force of the film, the meaningful interactions and brilliantly utilised side characters fell to the side and my care for the film severely lessened.
The plot itself felt silly and the more it went on the more farcical it began to feel. The biggest loss, however, was that the film’s two primary characters – Ben and Holly – became vehicles for the plot and the gut-wrenching interactions between the two were replaced with scenes focused on continuing that plot.
And in the end, it culminated in an ending that just didn’t feel right. There was more story for the film to tell. The stories of some of the side characters wasn’t finished. Ben’s story still had a little more to give. I think I get what writer, director Peter Hedges was going for with his ending, but I feel after everything the audience had been expected to give over emotionally up until that point, that the deserved just a little bit more.
Don’t get me wrong though, Ben Is Back was still an extremely moving and an extremely affecting experience. Since seeing the film, it has caused me to really stop and take a look at myself and how I treat/effect those closet around me with my (frankly) shitty actions. Coming out of this film, I really struggled with some of the truths that it caused me to face. That’s an extremely personal aspect that this film caused for me and I’m aware it probably won’t be a similar situation for most who watch this but I wanted to share that and to show just how much of an impact the film had on me and what a testament it is to the script, the performances and the characters on offer in Ben Is Back.
Ben Is Back isn’t a revolutionary piece of cinema. It doesn’t properly nail all of its elements. But for me, it was a film that made quite the impact and I have to recognise that and appreciate it for doing so. I’ve got some real self-reflection to go deal with now, so I’m gonna wrap this up.
Yes, I recommend, Ben Is Back. It is no easy watch and there’s a chance it’ll leave you feeling a little down in the dumps, but I think that only helps to point out how effective the film is at telling its story and exploring its themes.
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