Julia Roberts is having a moment, with her venture into TV with Amazon’s Homecoming, and her welcome return to form in Ben is Back, her first leading movie role in a few years. As the movie of the titular Ben (Lucas Hedges), her oldest of four children, an addict, that surprises the family with an abrupt return on Christmas Eve. The film sets up intriguing character dynamics and shifts tones between family drama and mild thriller as the forces some surprising turns, but ultimately it never quite veers away from being a well-done version of a mediocre movie that Lifetime specializes in.
The family dynamics are pretty clear from the start. Holly (Roberts) is with her three other children, angelic teen Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and the younger (and mixed-race) Lacey and Liam. As the family car pulls up to see Ben on their doorstep, Ivy frantically begins texting her stepdad, Neal (Courtney B. Vance). This is not a typical reunion. With dark subtext peppering every interaction, and the family talking around a history with Ben that is violent and negative, the varying relationships are engaging and curious. Holly is forgiving of Ben and takes him at face value. Ivy and Neal are wary and uncomfortable. This was not part of the plan. The dynamic between Holly and Ben drives the initial development of Ben is Back and Hedges and Roberts are both believable as mother/son and fascinating to watch as they navigate between mundane tasks like chores and shopping. Then, the film takes a turn when the house is burglarized, the family dog is stolen, and Ben, with Holly in tow, must confront his past in the search for their pet.
Writer-director Peter Hedges (Pieces of April, Dan in Real Life, and yeah, Lucas’ dad) steers clear of complete melodrama and wrenches some great moments out of Roberts and his son. Their fight in the mall, the confrontation in the cemetery, the meeting, their wordless faces at church, all of these suggest a much better movie than the overwrought artifice of the final third. Roberts, with biting commentary behind her sweetheart smile and heavy eyes, commands every moment on screen and does a great job making Holly interesting and sympathetic even as she makes some terrible choices and does some despicable things. Hedges the younger, is carving out quite a career for himself as he finds an emotional center that makes his characters captivating, even in the smallest moments.
The biggest issue with the film is the abrupt shift in tone and a conclusion that is a bit expected and at the same time unearned. The characters of Neal and Ivy are shoved to the side after intriguing setups, Vance’s cold detachment as Neal and Newton’s middle-child mistrust are neither serviced properly. It’s a shame because while the family conflict would’ve been less exciting, it could’ve been far more engaging. In the end, Ben is Back ends too abruptly and with nothing more than the suggestion of what could’ve been a much better movie.
My Grade – B-