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Movie Review: ‘Ben is Back’ Mixes Familial Addiction Crisis with Suburban Thriller

CREDIT: Mark Schafer/LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton

Director: Peter Hedges

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for The Profanity of Familial Frustration and Some Drug Use

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

Ben is Back reminds me quite a bit of Good Time, despite the two being wildly different in tone and purpose. But their narrative structures and momentum match up strikingly. Both are about all-night attempts to retrieve a beloved family member, with secrets, subterfuge, and drug use along the way. It just goes to show you that when it gets right down to it, outer borough dwellers who resort to crime aren’t all that different from upstate suburban families.

Where Good Time was about Robert Pattinson springing his brother out of jail after a botched robbery, Ben is Back follows Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) and her son Ben (Lucas Hedges) as they track down the beloved family dog in the wake of Ben’s history of bad decisions catching up with him. Ben has just unexpectedly showed up at home from rehab on Christmas Eve, and he promises that he is making an honest effort to stay clean. But then someone comes to collect a debt by kidnapping the dog, and the temptations to relapse shoot up exponentially.

Movies with premises like Ben is Back‘s tend to make a double-edged promise to their audience: they feature tremendous, heartfelt acting and have thoughtful and open-minded things to say about the opioid crisis, but they are also stressful and depressing viewing experiences. Beautiful Boy is a prime recent example that was overwhelming in its anxiety. But Ben is Back bypasses that disquiet, or at least sets it aside for the moment, with the urgency of its plotting. It makes for a cinematic experience that is not exactly fun, but certainly thrilling. And it’s not like it avoids the hard questions. Indeed, the matters of whether or not Holly can ever trust Ben, and how much his brain is even in control of how much he can be trustworthy, are brought into sharp relief by the occasion of finding the dog. This is what the opioid crisis looks like during the holidays for one family – there might be enough hope for them to make it through.

Ben is Back is Recommended If You Like: Good Time but if it were about the opioid crisis

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Relapses

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