This review was first published on December 27, 2018.
Ben Is Back is the third Lucas Hedges movie this year, after Mid90s and Boy Erased. At the risk of becoming overexposed, I think he’s continued to pick solid projects so far, and he’s gradually becoming a better actor. He’s been nominated for an Oscar, but until his performance in Boy Erased, he hadn’t quite wowed me yet. I think this is his best performance, and easily his best film this year. It might be one of the best films of the year, period.
Holly (Julia Roberts) is shocked when her drug-addicted son Ben (Hedges) arrives home unexpectedly from rehab on Christmas Eve. She’s welcoming and overjoyed to see him, but then she goes upstairs and hides all her medicine and jewelry. She loves her son unconditionally, but she’s terrified of him. More than anything, she’s determined to keep him safe. We follow the family over the 24 hours, where secrets are revealed and truths are uncovered.
It’s also the year’s second Oscar bait-y drama about parents and teenagers dealing with drug addiction, followed by Beautiful Boy. This is about the lies we tell ourselves to cope with trauma in life. Holly sets a list of rules for her time with Ben, that ultimately she can’t follow. This isn’t trying as hard to be a Big Important Movie, and because of that, it’s ultimately much better. It’s got some of the year’s best acting, it’s tightly scripted and full of dramatic tension. It’s very much staged like a play, where it’s mostly these two central performances, and the dynamic that’s explored between them but feels cinematic enough to justify a trip to the movies.
There is no conceivable reason for Julia Roberts to not be in the Oscars conversation this year. It’s easy for the viewer to forget how truly magnificent she can be in the right role, and this is one of her best films. Among her peers of the rom-com leading ladies of the ‘90s, Julia Roberts is the only one I can think of who became a much more interesting actress in her later projects. Between this and August: Osage County, it’s clear she’s now an actress without vanity, and all the better for it. She’s still stunningly beautiful, but it’s not about that anymore. This film portrays her as an everywoman – a parent confounded by the living hell that is now her life. There are a few scenes that feel Oscar-reel ready. But for the most part, she’s giving a subdued, sensitive, heartbreaking performance, and one of the very best performances from an actress this year.
I still think Lucas Hedges is figuring out who he is as an actor. Every performance of his is better than the last, and he’s certainly worked a lot since his Oscar-nominated turn in Manchester By the Sea. He has some large-scale dramatic moments in this movie, but he’s best in quiet moments that show his range. Particularly in a scene at an AA meeting, he’s exceptional. Ben is trying to charm the crowd, and play it cool, but then breaks down emotionally in a way that takes you by surprise.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges, Lucas’ father, Ben is Back succeeds due to solid pacing, a thoughtful script and wonderful performances. It is handsome but unfussy and keeps you on the edge of your seat. It sort of becomes a race-against-the-clock thriller in the second half, where Ben must outrun enemies from his past. But this isn’t enough to distract the viewer from the very real, and far more important emotional stakes.
Kathryn Newton, from this summer’s Blockers, is very good as Ivy, Ben’s voice-of-reason sister. Courtney B. Vance is also doing fine work as Holly’s second husband Neal, with whom she has two younger children. But, ultimately we spend the most time with Roberts and Hedges, and they’re terrific. This particular mother-son dynamic is explored in emotionally raw, and devastating ways. Ben Is Back one of the most powerful films I’ve seen in years.