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TIFF Film Review: ‘Ben is Back’ Encompasses Two Stories that Fail to Compliment One Another

2018 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It’s rarer than people think that a film would feel like two separate stories in one.  Such is the case with Peter Hedges’ “Ben is Back’ starring Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts.  Starting off as an addiction drama in which we are studying how the choices of an addict have affected his family members.  Halfway through, the film makes an awkward and aggressive shift to a kidnapping-crime-heist thriller.  Though featuring terrific performances from Hedges and Roberts, the film doesn’t have enough juice to pull it over the finish line without sacrificing its intended audience.

“Ben is Back,” tells the story of Ben (Hedges), a charming yet troubled addict who returns home from rehab on Christmas Eve to spend time with his family.  His loving mother (Roberts) welcomes her beloved son’s return but soon learns he is still very much in harm’s way from not only himself but his checkered past.  During the next 24 hours, they embark on a journey that could change both their lives forever.

Lucas Hedges, an actor who is exploring his range at this point in his career as proven by his turns in “Boy Erased” from Joel Edgerton and “Lady Bird” from Greta Gerwig, churns out another virtuous performance.  He taps into Ben’s guilt and dependence with a delicate and sophisticated method.

Julia Roberts’ motherly and devoted instincts are put to excellent use as she surveys the optimism and strength of Holly.  Her “mama bear” approach to the character is deeply felt and stands out in a year full of sharp, notable female performances.

The family dynamic that surrounds addiction is an important one that the filmmaking world should explore more often.  Peter Hedges first half is superb, clicking into the active manner in which all members of a family interpret and deal with addiction.  But the success is short lived as he then dives into a full-on, kidnapping thriller as two protagonists try to beat the clock to save one of their own…their family dog.  As abrupt as it sounds as the words are typing, it’s even more jarring as the events are taking place, especially given that it follows an emotional and pinnacle scene in which Lucas Hedges stretches his acting legs to a great resolve.

“Ben is Back” serves as an interesting watch in which the competing mind of a writer is at odds with himself.  Peter Hedges knows how to write compelling characters, we’ve seen it before.  All these laters, you can still look fondly upon “About a Boy” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and see his genius at work.  When he directs, the man knows to frame his scenes in order to build tension and balance between characters.  It all simply falls apart in the direction in which he wants to bring them. Perhaps next time.

“Ben is Back” is distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions and opens in theaters on Dec. 7.

GRADE: (★★)

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “BEN IS BACK” ranks among the contenders!