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Ben Is Back (2018)

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The Peter Hedges-written/directed opioid-crisis movie starring Julia Roberts and the auteur's son, Lucas. Ben is an addict in his late teens who has received and squandered many second chances. He surprises his family by showing up at the house unannounced at Christmas. He is supposed to be in a recovery facility, but assures everyone that the pop-in is something his sponsor has approved. His mother Holly, two young half siblings, and the family dog are very happy to see him. His wary younger sister (Kathryn Newton) and his even less trusting stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) are less so.  

This barely opened where I live, and it did not do well at the box office even for a smaller film, despite being well reviewed. Now it is available for rental. I agree with the reviewers who feel it is two films:  an astute family drama for about the first 45 minutes, then in the remaining hour an increasingly melodramatic and less plausible suspense thriller, with mother and son driving together and separately through frigid upstate New York on perilous errands. You can almost hear the click of calculation in the scene in which the family returns home from church to make an upsetting discovery.    

Roberts has one of her best "mature" roles as a mother we sense is somewhat overbearing in the first place, perhaps relishing having good cause and license to be overbearing. I could have done with one fewer high-decibel awards-bait scenes (there is one at a drive-through pharmacy and another at a police station), but her emoting in the film's very last scene is earned. Actor Hedges, adding another '90s goddess to his roll call of movie moms, has good parent/child chemistry with Roberts. He makes a convincing maybe-not-recovering addict too. Ben sometimes manipulates with charm or self-abasement (the "I'm the worst person in the world; you should just forget about me" routine). The film, especially in its first and best portion, is good at making the viewer wonder what is goal-oriented role play and what is sincere shame and guilt. It is all in the mix.

Newton, who already played Lucas Hedges's sister in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and was part of the ensemble with him in Lady Bird (Julie's fall-back friend, Darlene), shines in support as the daughter/sister, Ivy. This character, Holly's responsible teenager, moves fluidly between being on her guard with the wayward brother, enjoying his company, and fearing for him. When the two of them gather logs for the fire, or when she tells him at a key moment to be careful, it feels like a genuine troubled but loving sibling relationship. Vance does what he can with an underwritten role. He is logically less invested in Ben than the others are, and is the character whose rational arguments cannot penetrate the emotional bond Holly has with her son.  

The film ends in a place that makes sense but for my taste is too abrupt. It is a credit to writer/director Hedges's work and the cast's that I wanted to see a few scenes that would have followed. Overall, a superior example of the issue movies that used to play on network television all the time. There is even a resource PSA at the end of the closing credits.   

Edited by Simon Boccanegra
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I just saw it and I'm traumatized.

The scene in the store where Julia Roberts starts banging on Ben's fitting room door and the saleslady tensely asks them to leave. O_o

The editing with both of them in different cars was tense, I kept expecting them to crash into each other and Julia Roberts dying. 

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