The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"BEN IS BACK"

Ben Is Back

Every so often, two movies dealing with the exact same subject matter come out in the space of just a few months. Deep Impact and Armageddon. Antz and A Bug's Life. Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. We've got another case of this right now. Ben Is Back and Beautiful Boy are both stories about drug-addicted teenagers and the codependent parents who mistakenly believe they can save them. One is an authentic, hard-hitting, deeply emotional examination of addiction's toll on both the addict and their family. The other one is Ben Is Back.

Julia Roberts plays Holly Burns, a woman who comes home one day to find her son Ben (Lucas Hedges) standing in the driveway. He claims to be doing so well in his sober living community that he was allowed a leave for the Christmas holiday. Holly and her two youngest children are excited to see him. Her husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) and teenage daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton), on the other hand, are deeply suspicious. They've been burned by his behavior before, so their guards are up. Holly convinces Neal to let Ben stay, provided that he submit to a drug test and never leave her sight.

The first half of Ben Is Back is fine, but familiar. Writer/director Peter Hedges (Pieces of April) deals with some of the expected issues related to the topic, specifically how the family shows caution around Ben. They have some understandable questions. Is he being honest about getting an approved leave? If not, will he rob them to buy drugs? Does he already have drugs on him? Scenes involving these issues -- and the anxiousness felt by Neal and Ivy -- have a ring of truth, although the film doesn't handle them any differently than many other pictures about addiction have.

Once the second half hits, what started off as a passable drama rapidly goes right off the rails. Ben Is Back becomes a crime story, as someone steals something from the family, and Ben and Holly try to retrieve it. The switch is maddening, in large part because the story would be over if they did the logical thing and called the police. Having them try to handle the matter themselves feels like a desperate attempt to create suspense, in addition to being a betrayal of what the movie started off as.

Things get worse as they go along with the introduction of an annoying cliche -- the dangerous drug dealer who wants something from our hero. (Yes, the family drama about a mother trying to help her addicted son suddenly has a villain.) All of this builds to an overwrought climactic scene, clearly designed to make Oscar voters sit up and take notice. Its power is diminished by the fact that the moment is telegraphed from a mile away, so that we're waiting for it to happen rather than having it creep up on us. Ben Is Back then ends abruptly and unsatisfactorily.

Roberts, Hedges, and Vance admirably try to make this flawed material work, and Kathryn Newton steals the show, suggesting the ways Ben has hurt Ivy in just a few short scenes. Despite the efforts of the cast, Ben Is Back simply abandons all pretense of being a realistic story about addiction/codependency in favor of becoming a thriller.

It was okay as the first thing. As the second thing, it's a disaster.

( 1/2 out of four)


Ben Is Back is rated R for language throughout and some drug use . The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.


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