Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 17, 2019)
At the age of 51, former “America’s Sweetheart” Julia Roberts doesn’t dominate multiplexes like she did in the 1990s. We still see Roberts every year or so, though, and Ben Is Back represented her sole cinematic entry for 2018.
Set on Christmas Eve, we meet Holly Burns (Roberts) and her family. One member has been absent for a while, as young adult son Ben (Lucas Hedges) remains estranged due to his drug abuse issues.
To the surprise of Holly and others, Ben suddenly returns. This event sets off a mix of dramatic complications.
Due to subject matter, I should relate to Back. My older brother shared more than a few traits with Ben, and during those occasions when he’d show up back in my family’s life, turmoil often resulted.
In this film’s story, I most connect to oldest daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton). She shows the most wariness about Ben, a position I occupied in my family – sort of. All of us failed to trust my brother, but I seemed more skeptical than the rest.
Ben connects to my brother only in theory, though, as he shows a lot more self-awareness and remorse than I witnessed. That doesn’t make Ben unrealistic, of course – dysfunction isn’t one size fits all – but it gives the story a spin outside of my experiences.
Though Back doesn’t replicate my family, I do feel enough connection to assess its theoretical sense of realism. In that regard, the film feels contrived and trite.
Despite the basic premise, Back largely ignores the family dynamics. It concentrates on Ben and Holly to the exclusion of almost all else, a factor that leaves the rest of the clan as little more than plot conveniences.
If Back investigated the mother/son relationship in a deep, meaningful way, I wouldn’t mind the absence of additional information. However, the story prefers to go down a strange path that doesn’t work.
Midway through the film, someone from Ben’s troubled past steals the family dog, so much of the tale follows Ben and Holly’s joint pursuit of the pooch. That seems like a perplexing choice, but it exists because it allows the movie to take us on a tour of Ben’s old haunts.
None of this offers a rich character exploration. Instead, it all feels like little more than window-dressing of the public service announcement sort, as the movie tries to show us the depravity drugs inspire in their users.
Except the movie never feels especially depraved. Back tells us of Ben’s problems and woes but we don’t feel them, as the issues tend to come across as superficial.
With actors like Roberts, Hedges and Courtney B. Vance in tow, the film enjoys a good cast, but they can’t do much with the material. Hedges rarely comes across as more than a sad puppy dog, and Roberts offers a stock portrayal of the determined mother who won’t give up on her kid.
Again, the issue lies more with the screenplay than with the actors. Back fails to give them room to develop into believable human beings, so we’re stuck with them as simple archetypes and not much more.
All of this leaves Back as an oddly unemotional enterprise. More of a weepy melodrama than a bracing look at the needle and the damage done, the film limps across its 103 minutes.