Tuesday 11 September 2018

BEN IS BACK - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2018 - Addiction Drama With Thriller Elements

Ben is Back (2018)
Dir. Peter Hedges
Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It's interesting that there are two major American films this year (in addition to a number of foreign language entries) playing at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) that deal with the subject of drug addiction amongst adolescents. Clearly this is an epidemic world wide and obsessing our filmmakers. Given the power of cinema and its unyielding nature as an art form, this is a year that historically we will look back upon, not just from a standpoint of film history, but history period.

Ben is Back is an original screenplay by director (Dan in Real Life, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) and novelist (What's Eating Gilbert Grape) Peter Hedges. The film it most resembles is Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy (also at TIFF 2018). That film involves a father and son struggling through the child's drug addiction. Here, the film focuses upon a mother and her son struggling through the child's drug addiction. That both are major and relatively mainstream American films both at TIFF 2018 is not without interest. One is, however, clearly superior to the other. It's not Ben is Back.

It should be said, though, that Hedges' film is not without considerable merit. That it lacks the pedigree of Van Groeningen's film being based upon not one, but two, true-life memoirs is not its central flaw. The writing Hedges crafts is often complex and intelligent and is indeed flavoured with touches that seem "real". Not surprisingly, it has "novelistic" properties in terms of its structure and I admired that it tries things we don't often see in most contemporary films. However, some of what it "tries" is not always successful.

Ben is Back unfurls a narrative set within a 24-hour period (I loved this macrocosmic aspect of the storytelling) in which a teenage drug addict (opioids), played by Hedges' real-life son, actor Lucas Hedges, returns home from rehab for a one-day holiday reprieve with his family. His mother (quite dazzlingly portrayed by Julia Roberts) is thrilled to see him, in spite of the pain he's caused to both himself and the family. He presents the picture of a young man well on his way to recovery. Doubts however remain and continue to creep into the proceedings. When a break-in occurs in the family home while they're all attending a Christmas concert, this results in the disappearance/pet-napping of the family's dog. Ben is convinced the dog has been snatched by one of several scuzzball drug dealers from his past. He and his Mother, together and separately, begin a suspenseful odyssey into the underbelly of the illicit drug world.

An easy, somewhat flippant, but not altogether inaccurate description of Ben is Back might be: "Beautiful Boy with thriller elements". These thriller elements are handled with plenty of directorial prowess and though the journey that mother and son take together is not without interest or merit, we are, during the second half of the film, occasionally taken out of the "addiction" story and faced with the realization that we're watching a movie about people trying to find their stolen dog. I do not wish to criticize this story element - it's bold, brash and original. Alas, it occasionally FEELS like an obvious conceit and as such, we become too aware of the "mechanics" of the film. This does indeed take us out of the narrative thrust.

Happily, the performances in the movie are first rate and in spite of the weird flaw in structure/delivery, the movie is so much more original and compelling than most contemporary American films. Perhaps I doth protest too much, but in comparison to Van Groeningen's film, or, for that matter Baldvin Z's utterly astounding Let Me Fall, it pales slightly in comparison.

It's wonderful seeing Julia Roberts work her magic in this film. She really is a great actress. One chillingly happy moment has her trashing a scumbag doctor who got her son hooked on pain medication. Her victory is petty, but damn, it's still satisfying.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ 3-and-one-half Stars

Ben is Back is a TIFF 2018 Special Presentation.