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Non-Review Review: Ben is Back

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Ben is Back finds itself in a strange place in terms of weirdness.

At is core, Ben is Back is essentially the Key and Peele vehicle Keanu reimagined as an earnest prestige picture for the era of Beautiful Boy. It is an inherently absurd premise, an exploration of drug addiction that takes the form of an epic odyssey to rescue a beloved family pet. The incongruous pairing of a recovering addict with his suburban mother on this most unlikely Christmas adventure adds an extra layer of strangeness to the whole proceedings. There’s something very exciting about all of these elements thrown together, feeling incredibly unconventional.

Hug life.

Unfortunately, Ben is Back feels gun shy. It never commits to the inherent ridiculousness of using a trashy thriller template to tell a more intimate story about a pressing contemporary issue. Instead, Ben is Back compromises itself. It tries to have the best of both worlds. It tries to strike a balance between being a dogsploitation journey in to the heart of darkness with a more grounded and mundane portrait of a family struggling with the trauma that addiction has inflicted upon them. The two tones might work separately, but they jar as Ben is Back alternates between them.

This is a shame, as there’s a lot of potential in Ben is Back, and a few moments when it seems like it might actually deliver upon it.

Ben around the world, and I can’t find my baby.

In some ways, it is surprising that there have been so few prestige drama directly tackling the opioid epidemic. It is one of the largest crises facing the United States at the moment, and a huge issue. It has been largely neglected and overlooked by those in positions of authority, but it is affecting the lives of millions of Americans. This is the type of crisis that tends to provoke prestige dramas, that lends to earnest examinations of the heart of the country through the prism of well-intentioned drama.

It is interesting that the two biggest drama looking at drug addiction in contemporary America are headlined by the two opposing Lady Bird boyfriends. Starring Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy was adapted from two matching memoirs from the father and son team of David and Nic Sheff. The film had the texture of no fewer than three different types of prestige picture: the performance-driven drama, the more expressionist music-driven festival choice and the earnest moral panic horror. It felt very formulaic and standard, as if built to specification.

Whether Neal or Far.

In contrast, Ben is Back feels less like it was designed according to some plans that came in a crate with the basic structural elements. Written and directed by Peter Hedges, Ben is Back is a strange hybrid. The initial set-up looks to be an earnest and sincere drama about a family struggling to come to terms with their son’s addiction. The eponymous young man returns home in time for Christmas, claiming that he was allowed out of rehab early. While his mother Holly is delighted to see him, other members of the family are more immediately suspicious.

The plot develops along these lines for a little while, with a push and pull between Ben and the people around. Can Ben be trusted? Is Ben lying? Is Ben going to betray the faith that his family have placed in him once again? The arrival of Holly’s son places a renewed stress on the family dynamic, with her new husband Neal understandably reluctant to take the recovering addict at his word. This is all boilerplate addiction drama stuff, right down to the manner in which Hedges keeps the audience on their toes by inviting them to be suspicious of Ben.

However, things take a sharp twist after the family attends a carol service. They return home to discover that somebody has broken into their house. More than that, their dog has been kidnapped. Ben is quickly convinced that the dognapping was orchestrated by somebody looking to settle a score with him, but he needs to narrow down the suspects. Holly is understandably reluctant to let her son wade back into that world given his history of substance abuse. Holly and Ben reach a reluctant compromise; Ben will lead the investigation, and his mother will go with him.

This is a very strange direction in which to develop the story, but it largely works because it is so strange and so compelling. Hedges sets up a familiar dramatic template, and then pushes it in a direction that is completely at odds with what the audience expects from a story like this. The kidnapping of the family pet is a clever narrative device, adding a pulpy thriller vibe to the standard structure of forcing Ben to confront the harm that he has caused, and in forcing Holly to bear witness to all the terrible things that Ben has endured.

A little bit of Holly at Christmas.

The biggest issue with Ben is Back is that the film feels the need to temper this direction, to offer many of the same rhythms and beats of a much more conventional drug addiction story within this unconventional narrative structure. The starting premise of Ben is Back is so weird that it feels almost surreal, but the film keeps pulling the audience back to the storytelling elements associated with a much more standard addiction drama. This creates a tension within the film that it never quite resolves. Ben is Back never seems entirely sure what it wants to be.

This is unfortunate, as Ben is Back has a lot to recommend it. There are moments of genuine emotional impact to be found on Ben and Holly’s late night adventure, as strange as that might sound, even if they are offset against lots of reaction shots of Neal looking frustrated. The central pairing of Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts works remarkably well, the film understanding that it can use the juxtaposition between its heavy subject matter and its bargain-basement story to create a compelling contrast.

Tearing him apart.

Ben is Back often works best when it bounces between comedy and tragedy, between the mundane horror of Ben’s addiction and the absurdity of Holly taking the family car on a vigilante canine recovery mission. “Mom, you’re overthinking it,” Ben advises his mother as the pair are parked outside a grotty drug den in the middle of nowhere. Without missing a beat, Holly responds, “That’s my job!” The film works best in these moments, in these strangely personal yet deeply depressing yet completely absurd moments.

It works less well when it tries to be a much more standard addiction drama.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

2 Responses

  1. This movie is on my list to watch I love Julia Roberts I hope I am not disappointed

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