Monday 28 January 2019

Film Review: Ben Is Back

Guess who’s back. Back again. Ben is back. Tell a friend.

Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) is a thief, an alcoholic and a drug addict. Seventy-seven days clean and prematurely out of rehab, Ben rocks up on the doorstep of his family home on Christmas Eve, much to the surprise (and dismay) of his long-suffering mother Holly (Julia Roberts), sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and step-dad Neal (Courtney B. Vance). 

Ben’s arrival upsets the status quo; while his family wants him to get his act together, they are at the end of their tether after an overdose six months prior. When some of Ben’s ‘mates’ learn he’s back in town, things start to unravel once again – only this time, it’s his family that gets caught in the crossfire. 

Ben Is Back is the kind of weepy Oscar fare that we have come to expect at this time of year. It stars a former Academy Award winner (Roberts) and an up-and-coming talent with a nomination already under their belt (Hedges). It deals with a heavy, hot-button issue ­–­ in this case, America’s growing opioid problem – imploring its audience to engage with it on a primordial, human level. Centered around a fractured family, Ben Is Back is angling for attention from the Academy, with mixed results.

For starters, its two leads are terrific. Roberts goes big here, full of anger and hopelessness that is ready to spill over at any second. She’s the archetypical mother who finds herself torn between never giving up on her son and despairing at where it all went wrong. Similarly, Hedges is great as the shambolic son at war with his inner demons. The film is firing on all cylinders when these two share the screen, trading both barbs and hugs in a constant battle underpinned by a fundamental familial love.

It can be said, however, that Ben Is Back covers familiar ground. As firm as its grasp is on addiction and instable domestic dynamics, it doesn’t have grander ambitions than simply following this family through a rough couple of days. Weep as much as you want, but Ben Is Back doesn’t swing for the fences and have a broader point – it brushes against once in an early scene set in a food court, but it leads nowhere.

The Verdict: 6/10

If you’re looking for sadness and sorrow, it doesn’t get much better (or worse?) than this; Ben Is Back is all about making you clutch the Kleenex, with its icy-cold palette, heavy-handed strings and a lingering sense of dread. Well-acted but a bit basic, it’s worth a watch for the performances at least.

Ben Is Back is in cinemas across Australia from Thursday January 31.

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