Misguided pride goeth before the patently offensive fall in Ben is Back. This drug-addiction drama is so reliant on plot turns, character decisions and clichéd symbolism (like an ending in a makeshift manger on Christmas morning) so distasteful and unpleasant that I retract all of my knocks against Beautiful Boy — 2018’s other awards-hungry, alliterative-B, drug-abuse horror show — and retroactively bump it up a half-star. I can even forgive that film’s use of “Sunrise, Sunset” to illustrate the quick growth of children after watching a film this infantile, irresponsible and insulting.
Ben is Back is a hunk of garbage that cheaply and casually diminishes America’s silent opioid crisis by loudly shouting up the very worst ideas on how to address it — a stultifying bit of sludge from writer-director Peter Hedges, who abandons nearly all of the sensitivity and smarts he brought to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy and Pieces of April. Hedges also leaves in the lurch his two lead actors: Julia Roberts, whose otherwise convincing portrayal of a mother of two minds about her recovering son collapses into one deeply upsetting, single-minded stupidity; and, as Ben, Hedges’ own son Lucas, today’s bellwether for bothered young men in indie films for whom this could’ve been a young-career capstone if his dad wasn’t always yanking at the foundation.
Rarely has Roberts met a director who couldn’t resist her beaming smile, and Hedges opens his film on it as well. Holly Burns is a suburban New York mom at holiday-pageant practice on Christmas Eve day with her teen daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and two young kids from her second husband, Neil (Courtney B. Vance). The Burnses return home to the titular event, Ben having arrived for the holiday per Holly’s stated wish to him.
The twentysomething Ben is on furlough from his most recent expensive stint in rehab for an opiate addiction forged from an overzealous prescription for an injury when he was 14. (Yes, Holly runs into the doctor to publicly berate him, in one of many moments that tries harnessing anger only to let its target to slip away. The doctor now has dementia, see, and can’t even remember Ben let alone what he prescribed him.) Ben says he has come home on the advice of his rehab sponsor and with the facility’s permission. But as Ben is swift to remind us — and repugnant in the way it uses this idea for suspense purposes — addicts lie. Always. You cannot trust them. You sure as hell can’t trust this movie, either.
Early moments suggest the tough but fair drama that might have been. Ivy and Neil form a quick, (sadly) well-rehearsed front against Ben’s emotional entropy. Ben has ruined Christmases past and while they love him, they’re inherently suspicious of his sudden return. They’ve also seen how his manipulative machinations can work. It’s the most effective sort of burglary he can perpetrate on Holly, who beams at her boy while also stashing away her own medicine and the pawn-worthy jewelry. Holly has seen Ben succeed but also found him with a needle in his arm on the verge of death.
In the middle of it all, Lucas Hedges holds down the silent, existential howl of someone for whom every decision could be the first on a path to self-destruction — whether it’s the anxiety of siblings analyzing his every move, the din of shoppers at the local mall, or the nervous, judgmental eyes of townspeople for whom he’s left a tornadic wake of destruction. Ben is clean today, but what about tomorrow? Hell, what about two hours from now? If the movie gets anything right, it’s the sensation for a recovering addict that panic precipitates the need for a meeting just as everyday folks might need a restroom, urgently and privately. Lucas Hedges lets us see the pressure rising in Ben as he struggles to beat back or bat away that which could so swiftly consume him.
One conversational clash between Holly and Neil, who is African-American, addresses the white privilege Ben has experienced that a minority in his same situation would not. Had Ben simply left Roberts, Vance, Newton and Lucas Hedges in the house on Christmas Eve to bounce such ideas off each other and how they factor into their fragile familial intimacy, it could’ve achieved a certain theatrical powder-keg momentum. Instead, Peter Hedges takes it in a direction you won’t expect or believe, an intrusion into the Burns home while they’re away and endangerment of the most helpless one in the house — Ponce, the family dog. That’s right: Nothing like a dognapping to underscore a cautionary tale about one of America’s most persistent, insidious crises.
Could the dognapper be the shifty-eyed guy conspicuously glaring at Ben from the mall’s glass elevator? The cute girl to whom Ben once dealt drugs who accosts him for “one last hit” after a Narcotics Anonymous meeting? Members of the syndicate for whom he used to sling? The violent father of a girl who overdosed on Ben’s stuff? Perhaps the high-school history teacher with whom he traded sex for Oxycontin?
Ben introduces us to each suspect in a story that turns into, of all godforsaken things, a terrible, terrible caper / detective film. Ben and Holly take a Christmas Eve odyssey into their suburb’s seedy underbelly to find Ponce. In true afterschool-special fashion, there’s even a scene in which Roberts looks all manner of movie-star fabulous while sauntering up to the stoop of a pill house.
But let’s go back to that history teacher for a second. Given what we learn about him, he has zero motivation to take Ponce and yet Ben insists they stop at his house. It is a moment of shamelessly unbridled narrative manipulation, occurring solely so Holly can learn of that part of Ben’s history and vomit on the roadside in revulsion over what he did to maintain his habit. It’s just the first domino in Holly’s long trail of unbelievable obliviousness to the magnitude of her son’s actions, up to and including the “murders” for which he blames himself. You’d think Holly had spent the last five years simply looking the other way.
Throw in a car that works just fine until the damn thing conveniently just won’t turn over, along with Ben’s inconsistent fears of who is revealed to be the eventual dognapper, and Ben is Back becomes so silly and goofy that disbelief can’t even pull detention let alone a suspension. There is also a scene in which Ben says he loves five people and Ponce “is two of them.” Ben is no fan of Neil, but he’s got a mom and three siblings. Who gets left out? Don’t ask Peter Hedges, who saw only what he believed to be a clever line (it’s not) and never considered how it might clang inside an awful screenplay.
Ah, but if only Ben is Back stopped at such a disappointing and disposable kind of bad. Nope. At one moment, in exchange for crucial information, Holly offers a hit she has acquired to Spencer (David Zaldivar), one of Ben’s lifelong friends who is also now an addict and far worse off — pacing back and forth in the freezing cold and hitting up strangers. Holly once changed Spencer’s diaper. Spencer was like a second son. Holly comments on “how fucked” this is. But the movie really has no idea of the connotation it’s peddling as we watch a well-off white woman offer her son’s minority friend what could be, for all she knows, a fatal dose. Right there, Ben lays bare its rancid, unforgettable and unforgivable tone-deafness: If you’re white with resources to fight, maybe you are the better addict. Other folks? Let God sort ’em out. It’s beyond self-congratulatory. It’s shamelessly sinister. Evil even, to the point where I beat back bile rising in my throat. Had there been a chair in front of me, I’d have kicked it.
Ben is Back doesn’t rank among 2018’s absolute worst movies only because it’s bad. It should be utterly ashamed of itself and the recklessness with which it marginalizes entire swaths of the population while making a melodramatic mockery of a very real problem.