Austin Film Festival 2018 Review/Interview: BEN IS BACK

By Liz Lopez

Rating: B+

Peter Hedges (“The Odd Life of Timothy Green”) has written and directed a drama about a young man, Ben (Lucas Hedges), his addiction and the many effects it has on all his family and families all around. Hedges story does not shy away from scenes that are very traumatic to family members and a feeling of fear is present shortly after the beginning as the family is preparing for the Christmas holiday. One scene shows Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) sitting in a church as her teen daughter, Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and young twins, Lacey (Mia Fowler) and Liam (Jakari Fraser) are rehearsing for a Christmas pageant. When they return home, they are in the holiday spirit and want to continue with festivities. That is, until they have an unexpected guest waiting for them, Ben (Hedges), waiting out front after leaving the sober-living facility. He has only been clean less than three months and not everyone is ready to receive him. The stand-out performances by Roberts, Hedges and Newton are very impressive and most definitely portray their characters as if they are a family unit that has dealt with the heavy (and mixed) emotions and blows from having an addicted family member.

Robert’s performance as the loving mother is superb and yet, she knows what Ben is capable of, so she can also be strict and stern while dishing out a loving welcome mat. Ivy loves her brother, but is not so easily impressed about him bailing out on the facility, so she calls her stepfather Neal Beeby (Courtney B. Vance). He too immediately has his concerns, so Holly then starts to voice her commands and conditions for Ben to remain present. The story has this roller coaster of emotions present to reflect how there are few peaceful moments each day in households like these.

The most emotional scenes begin when the family dog is kidnapped and Ben suspects it is someone from his past in the community. Ben and Holly set out to reclaim the pet, only to end up in an all-night escapade no one would want to have to go through. During this race around town, Holly is left without her car and appeals to another mother, Beth Conyers (Rachel Bay Jones, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “God Friended Me” TV Series), who previously lost her daughter to addiction. The encounter between these two characters is one that will not be easily forgotten and I certainly hope to view the next movie performance by Jones.

The film may not be the one to be selected by families during the upcoming holidays, but it most definitely shines the light on how desperate families all around the countryside are. This film should be viewed to see the outstanding performances by Roberts and Lucas Hedges based on the well written material for this story that most definitely keeps the viewer on the edge as the night wears on.

“Ben is Back” is rated R and will arrive in Austin theaters on December 21st.

 

Ben is Back AFF Peter Hedges interview 10.2018

Q- What was your inspiration for the film?

PH – This is a story about a family dealing with this issue. There are tons of families that do, including my family too. It is a love story of a mom and her kid who wants to turn around – it started from there toward “Ben is Back.”

Q- Can you name challenges with this production?

PH – As a father, my son Lucas is in the film. Being my kid, it made me try to write the best. You want your kids to be proud of you. Once he decided to do the film, I didn’t think through the effect on our relationship. What if I failed him or he had a bad experience? It was my fear; I felt the weight of the responsibility.

Q – Can you talk about the family.

PH – I like writing about families. It is my favorite thing to do. Family is the most important thing to me. I cared about my career- had my children – and this is the first time I gifted myself this time to let myself write for me. The second half of this movie is unlike any I’ve done. It is an important film. The goal was to make something impactful – be useful in the world. We need to figure out our gifts and how to share them.

Q – What about the scene at the pharmacy with Julia and the prescription. Some social commentary?

PH – It is an epidemic. There are lots of villains; the prison system, big pharma, etc. There are no big speeches. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There was some preaching, but it was removed. Lucas said there was some in it. That’s me writing / talking, but a lot of people don’t know that 80% of heroin users start with prescriptions.

I don’t drink or use drugs. I took one Oxy post surgery. I crawled on the floor. I knew if I took another – I was done. I dumped them (medication) in the toilet.

Q – Can you share something about the casting?

PH – This was not written with Julia in mind. I wanted a great actress. I saw her in “Wonder” and I thought why she isn’t in more leading roles. She was Holly. I mainly tried to write the truthful and believable in this.  Moms who connect. I hope people can see this was treated with compassion – it is a disease, not a choice. Do not throw each other away.

Katheryn did work with Lucas in other films (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Lady Bird”).  She brought things to Ivy – I really felt she loved Ben. Courtney – I wanted a remarkable man – and got it.

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