There’s a special little alchemy on display in Ben Is Back, a wonderful new film hitting theaters this week. You see, in the director’s chair is filmmaker Peter Hedges, while in one of the central two roles is his son, Lucas Hedges. Each has done strong work in the past, but here they bring out the best in each other. When I haven’t even mentioned the commanding turn by Julia Roberts, you know this is good stuff. Together, the three of them make this among 2018’s finest works. It will contend for a spot on my year end top ten list.
The movie is a family drama about a teenage drug addict home for the holidays. It’s Christmas Eve and Holly Burns (Roberts) is wrangling her two young children, while older daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) performs in a church choir show. When they return home, they discover Holly’s oldest and Ivy’s brother Ben (Hedges) waiting for them. Ben is supposed to be in drug rehab, but he’s home for Christmas. Holly is overjoyed, while Ivy is suspicious. Holly’s new husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) is all but hostile, which is to be understood, as there’s unsaid tragedy in their past. Holly welcomes Ben home, but isn’t above hiding her jewelry and prescription pills. She wants to believe that he’s better, but as the day progresses, it becomes clear that as much as he may want to change, trouble is still following him. The less you know about the second half of the flick, the better. It’s best left to be discovered. The elder Hedges writes and directs, while supporting players include Rachel Bay Jones, Michael Esper, Mia Fowler, Jakari Fraser, Alexandra Park, and David Zaldivar, among others. Dickon Hinchliffe handles the music, while the cinematography is by Stuart Dryburgh.
This is a tremendous work of emotional cinema. Peter Hedges and Lucas Hedges make magic together, while Julia Roberts is as good as she’s ever been. There are two standout sequences that really showcase them. One is set at a cemetery, while the other, which is among the best scenes of the year, takes place at a mall and has Roberts absolutely crush a short speech. Admittedly, the film gets melodramatic the longer it goes on, but the emotion at the end is well earned. By the time the end credits roll, there’s a strong chance that you’ll have rolled a tear or two.
Ben Is Back deserves some Oscar consideration. A targeted campaign centered on Best Actor (for Lucas Hedges), Best Actress (for Julia Roberts), and Best Original Screenplay (for Peter Hedges) would be the smart play. Hell, while Best Picture is a long shot, it never hurts to prove you’re serious about the film’s bona fides. The younger Hedges could split votes with his other strong turn in Boy Erased, but Actor is a weird enough category that he’s got a chance. Roberts in Actress is likely the play with the best chance of scoring a nomination, but time will tell. Right now, it’s an under the radar Academy Award player.
If you have Ben Is Back opening on Friday in a theater near you, seek it out. Hedges (times two) and Roberts are so good here, they invest you completely in the story. Go in as blind as possible, as the story works best as a bit of a surprise. There’s a definite tonal shift, but as long as you’re compelled by what’s going on, that won’t be an issue. At the moment, this ranks as one of the top dozen things I’ve seen all year. Will it hold on for a top ten slot before 2018 is out? You’ll have to stay tune in order to find out, but this is an absolute must see…
Be sure to check out Ben is Back, beginning its theatrical run this weekend!