' ' Cinema Romantico: Ben Is Back

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Ben Is Back

“Ben Is Back” opens inside a church sanctuary during rehearsal for the Christmas Eve pageant as the camera pans down from above and past a stained glass window, coming to rest on Holly Burns (Julia Roberts), wide-eyed and wide-smiled, sitting in a pew, a classic kind of movie star shot. Immediately, however, “Ben Is Back” cuts from the church’s interior warmth to an exterior cold, drab grey where the eponymous Ben (Lucas Hedges), Holly’s son, vaping, his face nearly doused with a hood, stands outside a house, peering through the windows, a barking dog inside seeming to connote trouble, underlined by the shaky, jittery camera rooted to Ben’s level. It proves a bit of a dodge, as the home is Ben’s and the dog is too, though these dueling aesthetics nevertheless foreshadow the film to come, one in which cozy domesticity is so close yet so far away, with mother and son acting as if they are in the throes of it even if the rest of the film evinces how hard it is to attain. And while there might be a bit too much ginning up of drama, particularly toward the end, for my taste, “Ben Is Back” succeeds not just because of its two ace leading performances but because it ultimately opts for hard-to-accept truth rather than having it both ways.

Although the narrative gradually pieces together the trials bringing Ben to this point, the precariousness of his plight is nevertheless felt straight away in the movie’s air, how upon being let into the family home his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) keeps her distance, sending covert, fraught texts to her and Ben’s stepdad, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), while Julia Roberts’s famous mega-watt movie star smile is cleverly employed as something else, a frozen-in-place grin oozing forced enthusiasm, blocking out all the obvious perils connected to her son’s unexpected return, choosing only to see what’s good, or what she believes to be good about it. Hedges, meanwhile, his character chattering away about what he’s learned in rehab and repeatedly citing talking points from his sponsor, deftly toes the line so you can’t quite tell if he’s just full of it or energetic in that way that people sometimes are when they are trying so hard to both change and be on their best behavior. Gradually, both Hedges and the movie, which was written and directed by Hedges’s dad Peter, peel back layers to show that both things are true.

The manner “Ben Is Back” peels back those layers, alas, can sometimes feel a bit too dramatically contrived, with all sorts of telegraphed events setting up just so to engender the ending, while also occasionally evoking something more akin to an action-adventure film, such as when Ivy and her laptop briefly transform the proceedings into “Mission: Impossible”. Even so, there is something emotionally affecting about how all these machinations force Holly to confront the truth about her son, that he was genuinely a bad person when under the awful spell of drugs, and though you might occasionally find yourself wondering if she would keep pressing forward so deep into the unknown as those aforementioned dramatic contrivances grow bigger, well, that aforementioned frozen smile is all the backstory you need to believe she would. There is an almost paralyzing sense of mother love here, so much so that she finds herself lying to the other half of her family, in effect becoming her son, even if you wish Peter Hedges might have pushed the consequences of these dubious ethics a little bit more.

Movies in this vein tend to conclude by either leaning too far into easy sentimentality or cheap cynicism, and while both potential avenues are glimpsed, whether it’s a wrap-up, while foreshadowed, hueing a little too close to an episode of “Lassie” or Ben’s plight taking the turn you are expecting all along, “Ben is Back” threads the needle. It manages this feat by transforming the mother/son quest not into a solution for the whole problem but rather a cosmic means waking them up to the next step for their reality.

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