‘Ben Is Back’ explores the quest for redemption

“Ben Is Back” (2018). Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Tim Guinee, Michael Esper, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Kristin Griffith, Mia Fowler, Jakari Fraser, Alexandra Park, Jack Davidson, Jeff Auer, Henry Stram, Nigel the dog. Director: Peter Hedges. Screenplay: Peter Hedges. Web site. Trailer.

The hell of drug addiction wears heavily on those afflicted by it. The physical and psychological effects alone can be devastating, but all of the other related effects – socially, economically and otherwise – can be just as destructive. And, when the impact on those close to an addict is added into the mix, the result can be just as catastrophic (and in virtually all of the same respects). But redemption is possible, difficult though it may be to achieve. So it is with a family dealing with such a crisis in the gripping and moving new drama, “Ben Is Back.”

Nineteen-year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) wants to spend Christmas with his family, but there’s just one problem – he needs to get approval to visit them from the rehab program where he’s enrolled to treat his drug addiction. He’s made progress at getting better, but he’s only been in treatment for a few months, and his counselors aren’t sure if he’s ready to go back to where his problem arose. The ghosts of his past, as well as the omnipresent threat of temptation, could derail his efforts and lead to a backslide. But, despite the risk, he makes the journey home to see his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), his stepdad, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and his step-siblings, Lacey (Mia Fowler) and Liam (Jakari Fraser). He also looks forward to seeing his pet dog, Ponce (Nigel the dog), who saved Ben’s life by finding him when he overdosed and nearly died, the event that led to his stint in rehab.

Needless to say, the family is surprised by Ben’s unexpected visit. Holly, Lacey and Liam are thrilled to see him, as is Ponce. Neal and Ivy, however, have their doubts. And, as the details of Ben’s past are gradually revealed during his stay, they’re justified in their skepticism. Even though he’s receiving treatment, his track record of behavior before he entered rehab was quite checkered. As both a user and a dealer, he dragged many others into his dark world, in some cases with catastrophic consequences. It’s no wonder that his sister and stepdad are wary.

Recovering addict Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges, right) and his concerned mother, Holly (Julia Roberts, left), face 24 harrowing hours while the teen is home for a visit from rehab in the gripping new drama, “Ben Is Back.” Photo by Mark Shafer, courtesy of LD Enterprises and Roadside Attractions.

Outwardly, Holly is happy to have her son home, and she tries to put a cheery face on the situation. But, despite the appearance of unconditional motherly love and boundless support, she’s no fool, either. She knows full well what Ben is capable of, and, when she needs to take a hard stand with him, she knows what to do. Her stern side surfaces after a heated discussion with Neal, who strongly disapproves of Ben’s visit and wants to return him to his treatment facility. So, after Holly and Neal agree to a compromise of a 24-hour stay, she promptly lays down the law about the conditions of Ben’s stay. Her direct, no-nonsense explanation is full of strings, including a drug test, never leaving her sight and facing an immediate return to rehab for any violation of her terms.

To feel as though he’s fully engaged as part of the family’s holiday celebration, Ben asks Holly if she could take him Christmas shopping at the local mall, to which she agrees. However, while there, Ben encounters two old acquaintances from his drug days, as well as the physician (Jack Davidson) who, in prescribing painkillers to treat a 14-year-old Ben for a snowboarding injury, provided the springboard for his life of addiction.

The stress of these incidents is so overwhelming that Ben insists Holly take him to a local Narcotics Anonymous meeting to help ground himself. The gathering provides some comfort, but it also leads to another difficult encounter with a young woman (Alexandra Park) who’s planning to get clean but who wants to get high one last time, an invitation she extends to Ben. He’s curious why she would ask him, of all people, to join her for this, a response that surprises her, particularly when she reminds him that he used to be her dealer, something he completely forgot.

Concerned parents Holly (Julia Roberts, foreground) and Neal (Courtney B. Vance, background) worry about their recovering addict son while he’s home from rehab for a Christmas holiday visit in director Peter Hedges’s latest offering, “Ben Is Back.” Photo by Mark Shafer, courtesy of LD Enterprises and Roadside Attractions.

By now, it’s apparent that going home might not have been a good decision after all. What’s more, the incident at the N.A. meeting raises Holly’s doubts, seriously stretching her trust that Ben is genuinely able to keep his word. She subsequently tightens the leash, insisting that he follow her dictates to the letter, including her requirement that he join the family in attending a Christmas Eve church service where Ivy will be a featured soloist and Lacey and Liam will participate in a nativity pageant. It’s an experience that, fortunately, provides Ben with some much-needed solace after such a rough day. But the peace of the season is shattered when the family returns home from church to find their house ransacked – and Ponce missing.

After a thorough search of the home, it doesn’t appear that anything was stolen, but Ponce’s disappearance is out of character for the otherwise-well-behaved pooch. Ben concludes that the dog was taken, most likely by someone from his past who knows he’s back in town, a gesture meant to send a message. And, given that Ponce was the one who found Ben when he nearly died, the choice of taking the family pet now was meant to hit him where it hurts most. Upon this realization, Ben storms off to find the dog that he and the rest of the family so lovingly adore.

Of course, by leaving, Ben violates the conditions of his stay, so Holly goes after him in hot pursuit. When she finds him, he tries to send her away, contending that, as well as she thinks she knows him, she doesn’t really know him at all – and everything that he was capable of in his past. Holly hangs tough, though, vowing to help Ben in his search to find out who took the dog. Thus begins a descent into the world of Ben’s past. This journey into the seamy drug underworld includes encounters with one of Ben’s former (and highly unscrupulous) high school teachers (Henry Stram), the parents of one of his deceased clients (Rachel Bay Jones, Jeff Auer), one of his former junkie cohorts (David Zaldivar) and a notorious kingpin pusher (Michael Esper), the most likely candidate for having abducted Ponce. And, as this scenario plays out, it appears that getting the dog back will require a Herculean effort – for both Ben and Holly – a task that carries risks for success and their very survival.

A Christmas Eve church service provides solace to troubled recovering addict Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges, center) while in the company of his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts, right), and stepdad, Neal (Courtney B. Vance, left), in “Ben Is Back.” Photo by Mark Shafer, courtesy of LD Enterprises and Roadside Attractions.

These are circumstances no one would envy. So the question that comes up, of course, is how did these characters find themselves in such dire straits?

At the risk of sounding glib, flippant or uncaring, Ben, Holly, and the rest of their family and cohorts are going through this scenario because they drew the circumstances to them through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. But why on earth, you might ask, would anyone want to create such horrific conditions for themselves? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this question.

Whatever we experience (or endure) in life is a highly personal matter, based on the particular beliefs we each hold. And, as outsiders, it’s not our place to judge what transpires for others, for those who create these circumstances have their own reasons for doing so, no matter how unpleasant or unbearable they may seem to us. It’s their experience to go through, for better or worse.

While attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, recovering addict Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges, center) impresses his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts, background), with the progress he’s made in getting clean, as seen in the new family drama, “Ben Is Back.” Photo by Mark Shafer, courtesy of LD Enterprises and Roadside Attractions.

When challenging conditions arise in someone’s life, in most cases they have to do with learning some kind of significant life lesson, including those that are difficult and that challenge us to cope with them. In many instances, this may be hard to fathom, even by those who materialize them, especially when they’re characterized by particularly onerous aspects. But such hardships often serve as valuable learning opportunities for understanding certain basic truths about the nature and qualities of existence.

For example, dicey situations frequently push us to get creative in coming up with workable solutions. They urge us to look past accepted limitations and preconceived notions, to think in terms we ordinarily might not. This is especially true in scenarios like the one Ben and Holly face. As becomes apparent, tried and true methods of coping with these circumstances simply won’t suffice, so they have to think in unconventional terms to resolve these issues.

In line with that, thinking outside the box also helps us realize that, in all situations, no matter how daunting or seemingly restrictive they may appear, we always have the power of choice at our disposal. In fact, recognizing, appreciating and utilizing this capability may prove to be our saving grace when things get tough and innovative solutions are called for. Ben and Holly discover this for themselves when going through their respective and collective ordeals, and, if they hope to survive them, they had better be prepared to make the most of their options, especially those that mean seem unavailable.

Skeptical stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance, left) and sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton, right) have doubts about the behavior of a family member recovering from drug addiction when he mysteriously disappears in director Peter Hedges’s latest, “Ben Is Back.” Photo by Mark Shafer, courtesy of LD Enterprises and Roadside Attractions.

At this point, though, one still might ask, how can such difficulties exist? It’s because the conscious creation process makes all options possible, from the happiest of endings to the most devastating of tragedies. The choice (there’s that word again) is up to us and what we seek to manifest, based on the reasons behind the hoped-for outcomes and the materializing beliefs that make them happen. One can only hope that we make the most of our opportunities and that we learn from the lessons that we seek to get. Such expanded awareness can aid significantly in the development of our personal growth, providing us with new capabilities and insights into the workings of reality, tools that we can employ in the creation of subsequent scenarios and experiences.

For what it’s worth, adversities like those that Ben and Holly undergo often are the best teachers, counterintuitive as that may seem. However, because their impact tends to be so strong and so pervasive, they frequently nudge us into expanding existing abilities or developing entirely new ones. This may be difficult to endure, but the associated growing pains usually pay off in the long run, despite the discomfort we experience when we go through such situations. We might not appreciate the benefits to come from them at the time, but, when we look back in hindsight and assess what they’ve made possible, we generally acknowledge that we wouldn’t have changed a thing, proof that what doesn’t kill us often makes us stronger. I’m sure Ben and Holly would concur with that, even if they might have heartily disagreed at the time.

This gripping film, which effectively combines a family drama with an edgy deep dive into a sinister subculture, reveals what it means to try and come back from a life and legacy fraught with baggage that resists letting go. For Ben, it requires walking a tightrope of seeking forgiveness while trying to let go of guilt, changing his dubious behavior, and fighting off the constant temptation that could easily undo all of his hard work to get clean and make amends. For those who care for him, it also requires traversing a high wire of being lovingly supportive yet skeptically vigilant, far from an easy balance to strike. And, no matter how hard everyone works at these issues, there’s always the threat that outside forces could interfere to undermine, or even negate, whatever progress has been made. It’s a challenge most of us would likely want to avoid at all costs.

A moment of crisis draws a strong emotional response from recovering addict Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges, right) while on a visit to a cemetery with his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts, left), in “Ben Is Back.” Photo by Mark Shafer, courtesy of LD Enterprises and Roadside Attractions.

Nevertheless, these are the circumstances in which the principals find themselves, and, if they ever hope to change them, they must do their best to cope with and seek resolution to the conditions they now face. It won’t be easy, but, considering the situation in which they find themselves, that comes with the territory. How well they succeed – if at all – depends on their resolve to see things through, to realize that change is possible, even if difficult to achieve.

One would hope that the redemption sought after in cases like this is indeed achieved. To make that happen, though, beliefs related to that goal must be established. This requires envisioning the formation, implementation and activation of thoughts and intents that make such an outcome attainable – the quest for forgiveness (including for oneself), the promise to reform one’s behavior, the release of guilt, the ability to resist temptation and the gratitude for seeing such results realized. These can be tough nuts to crack, but they’re far from insurmountable, especially when we have faith – in itself a belief – that they’re wholly achievable. The feelings that arise from such efforts can be renewing, enlightening and uplifting, offering us the chance of a new beginning – and a brilliant and bright future.

After seeing “Ben Is Back,” I couldn’t help but wonder why it’s being ignored (and, in some cases, unfairly bashed) by critics. Director Peter Hedges’s latest is easily one of the best offerings of the year, featuring a well-integrated fusion of family saga and thriller. Roberts and Hedges turn in knock-out performances worthy of awards consideration for their range of emotion and powerful delivery, and the picture’s well-crafted screenplay serves up an excellent mix of heartfelt emotion, gritty intensity, shocking revelation, pointed comic relief and deftly nuanced subtlety. Sadly, this appears to be one of those releases that’s simply going to be overlooked for honors and accolades, and that’s truly unfortunate, as this is quite an unexpected gem.

Three other points are worth mentioning. First, there have been a number of comparisons between this release and another offering about teenage drug addiction, “Beautiful Boy,” which was released earlier this fall. Some have tried to claim that “Ben Is Back” is a little more than a knock-off of its predecessor, but that’s a highly unfair comparison. True, both films deal with the same subject matter, but that’s about where the similarities end. “Beautiful Boy” is based on a true story, while “Ben Is Back” is a work of fiction. In addition, the former deals almost exclusively with the protagonist’s recurring stints in rehab over time and his parents’ attempts to get their son clean, while the latter is set over a compressed time frame and addresses all of the fallout that can accompany drug addiction beyond the obvious physical and psychological health considerations. Trying to say that these films are copycats of one another is simply a lazy comparison.

Moreover, this is the second role in as many months featuring Hedges as a teen in crisis, the first having been “Boy Erased” about the gay son of a fundamentalist preacher who undergoes conversion therapy in an attempt to turn straight. The young actor has earned considerable praise for that portrayal, including a Golden Globe Award nomination for best male performance in a drama. However, as good as Hedges is in that film, his work here is arguably even better, given that he’s required to show a greater range of emotion and to engage in a wider array of actions and activities. While his performance in “Boy Erased” is certainly noteworthy, it’s unfortunate that his portrayal here isn’t receiving commensurate recognition.

And then there’s Julia Roberts, who delivers one of the best – and most overlooked – performances of her career. As Holly, Roberts must straddle the fine line between tough love and unconditional love. The range of emotion required in that is extensive, one that routinely calls for her to vacillate between being scolding and being nurturing. In many ways, this role reminds me of her work in “August: Osage County” (2013), in which she alternated between playing caretaker and taskmaster to her terminally ill mother and her functionally challenged family. She builds on that characterization here as a mother who must do the same for a son in crisis whom she wants to trust but must ever remain suspect about as he seeks to turn his life around.

When someone goes through, or attempts to recover, from the debilitating effects of drug addiction, the challenges in getting clean can at times be seemingly insurmountable. The possibility of everything unraveling, even in the face of progress, always looms in the background. But then there’s also the possibility of hope, that matters can be worked out and restored to what existed before such ordeals arose. This truly is one of those situations where those affected need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. And, with the right support, lots of love and a stern resolve, circumstances can be rectified. For all of those going through such suffering, be it directly or on the sidelines, here’s to your every success.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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