Boy with a problem
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The dark drama "Ben Is Back" begins with the sudden return of a teenage boy, Ben Burns (slyly disturbing Lucas Hedges) to his suburban home. It's Christmas morning, and while Ben's mom Holly (terrific Julia Roberts) is glad to see him, her new husband (Courtney B. Vance) is worried about Ben's impact on his children and his marriage. Over a whirlwind 24 hours, hard truths emerge, and a mother's love for her kid is put to the test as she tries to keep him from lapsing into addiction.
The film benefits from a strong ensemble but suffers from the unrelenting darkness of the action and a lighting palate that often makes it hard to tell what's going down. As with most drug dramas, the filmmakers don't stray far from the sponsor/group therapy playbook, so the value of the piece depends on your appreciation of these fragile humans finding some emotional comfort in an often-told tale.
My conversation with writer-director Peter Hedges began with the question of why drug abuse in America is so out of control. Hedges acknowledged the coincidence of the simultaneous release this season of another major drug-abuse-themed film, "Beautiful Boy."
Peter Hedges: "We have a big problem, and we need to figure out how to heal. I have not seen 'Beautiful Boy' yet, but completely root for it. With 'Ben is Back' I wanted to tell a different kind of story, one that I hoped would be part of a bigger conversation we need to have. I wanted to write about one family over the course of one day. Ben came home to make this Christmas right, and his return has started to make some things go wrong. It's a pretty complex day of temptation, and fraught with questions: Is he using? Is he going to use? Is he telling the truth? Holly's determined to keep him out of harm's way during the 24 hours they've agreed he can be home.
"They return home, the Christmas tree's been knocked over, and the family dog is missing. Ben wants to get the dog back, but that's the beginning of more problems: Who could be out to harm them? Things come up that he has never shared with his mother. She starts to see all the wreckage of his life, his abuse, and the lies she has to tell other family members. It felt like an opportunity to go into the drug world in an organic way, to see if they can make it back out.
"Look, a movie like this has to be made perfectly or there isn't much use for it. So what kind of research did I do? First of all, there are many people in my life who are in recovery. I come from a family that was rocked by a member having been an addict. I know intimately the dynamic of a family dealing with a person out of control in their disease. I met with addicts and families of addicts, read obituaries, so when I decided to write this, I wrote it, it wrote me, very quickly. I knew what it needs to feel true. Otherwise it doesn't have the impact it needs for it to be useful." (Opens Friday.)