The film is more about redemption within a family than it ever is about overcoming a drug problem
The usage of drugs, drug dealers, rehab and the effect these have on those around them have become commonplace in modern cinema. Calling them a cliche would perhaps be a disservice to those who struggle with them in reality, because these issues are very much present in all corners of society, whether they be deemed civilised or not. Opening up to these issues in popular culture seems to come from the incredible impact they have, and how widespread the hurt can become.
Ben Is Back, though caught up in the constant barrage of drug issues broadcast in all forms of culture, makes itself stand out. There is a deep understanding of the family dynamic within director Peter Hedges film, and that outweighs all of the other tropes that occupy the film’s run time. Ben Is Back is not a film about drugs, but instead one that looks at how an outsider changes a family dynamic.
Taking care of her family consumes Holly’s (Julia Roberts) life, with her day to day activities revolving around those she loves most. However, when her eldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges) returns home from rehab unexpectedly, the family dynamic is shifted substantially. Ben’s struggles with drug abuse consumes all members of the family, driving a divide between them when deciding how to deal with the problem they all face.
The humanity of Ben Is Back becomes its real pull. There’s an understanding within the narrative that projects a sense of realism upon the story, however unnatural and different the unfolding events become. For someone who has no experience with drug culture, or with those embroiled in it, there is a gateway into understanding some of the emotions that come with it, without getting caught up in the more forceful and graphic side of taking recreational drugs.
Much of the story stems through Julia Roberts’ character Holly, who not only brings the viewpoint of a mother, but one of a loving human desperate to help, with the will to open up to the unknown. Ben Is Back is as naive to these issues as anyone on the outside would be, but presents them as a very real and all-consuming issue. Never taken for granted, Ben’s drug problem isn’t deemed trivial or second-rate, but is always looked at as a separate issue. The film is more about redemption within a family than it ever is about overcoming a drug problem.
Similar to Beautiful Boy released earlier this year, Ben Is Back perhaps has a greater grasp on the human side of the parent-child relationship, compared to Beautiful Boy’s take as an equality piece between the adult and the child. Julia Roberts position as a scared, determined, and loving parent is a far more active role, and that makes Ben Is Back the proactive film it ends up setting in as. With a very similar story, the pair of film’s juxtapose well to showcase how different two viewpoints on similar topics can actually become.
Ben Is Back is heart wrenching and thrilling, whilst never forgetting just how serious its core issues are. Families are always complicated and always unforgiving, but when processing that into a functioning drama, it is often the simpler moments that are left forgotten. Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges performances ring so intrinsically real, Ben Is Back is given huge family-orientated meaning, before it even begins to process that into a beautifully constructed piece of cinema.
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