Julia Roberts gives one of her best performances in addiction tale Ben is Back

by James Robins / 03 February, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Ben is Back movie

Julia Roberts brings nuance and authenticity to the story of a mother and her addict son.

There is nothing a parent wouldn’t do for a child in peril. Their love is the fiercest and most devoted. But when that child is in the grip of addiction, parents are almost powerless bystanders to a slow-motion collapse. This is the problem faced by suburban mother Holly Burns, played by Julia Roberts in what might be her most nuanced and moving role, when her son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), bunks off rehab and turns up on her doorstep on Christmas Eve. Ben is Back takes place over a mere 24 hours, and in its brief span shows up the other recent kid-on-drugs film Beautiful Boy. From the first frame it’s clear that this reserved and low-key picture is not so shamelessly portentous, not so eager to wrench our heartstrings without earning the right to. There’s no Neil Young on this soundtrack.

The film’s trick is authenticity, much of it provided by Roberts. Like any mother, Holly’s thrilled to see her son home, even as her husband and daughter eye him warily. But fear of a relapse lingers: she smothers Ben in hugs, then promptly hides all the medication and jewellery in the house.

Indeed, aside from one obligatory scene at a 12 Steps meeting and a brief conversation with a jittery tweaker, this is an addiction drama with barely a needle or broken lightbulb in sight. It explores the corrosive impact of drugs through the consequences it wreaks on families and communities. The pall of Ben’s past life hangs over the story. Rather than rely on tedious flashbacks or grating explanation – as Beautiful Boy did to its detriment – director Peter Hedges (Lucas’ father) cleverly contrives to have Ben revisit places from his wigged-out days, forcing him to contend with selfish blindness. We get the traumatised afterglow, rather than weightless re-enactment.

Which is not to say that Ben is Back is a mirthless and dire experience. In places where you least expect them, someone will crack a dark and cynical joke, such as when Holly brutally excoriates the now-senile family doctor for giving Ben powerful painkillers when he was a teenager, setting in motion a cycle of habit. It’s a moment that is shocking, funny and pathetic all at once.

Of course, Holly’s outburst (among others) is just another expression of that fierce protection. And as the film spirals towards a tough conclusion, it’s through Roberts’ extraordinary, haunting performance that we see how devotion truly has no limit.



Video: Zero Media

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


The key to long-term success after weight-loss surgery
107438 2019-06-26 00:00:00Z Health

The key to long-term success after weight-loss sur…

by Nicky Pellegrino

Weight-loss surgery is becoming more common, but lifestyle and attitude changes are needed for long-term success.

Read more
Matariki feast: Kasey and Karena Bird's family recipes
107605 2019-06-25 11:39:22Z Food

Matariki feast: Kasey and Karena Bird's family rec…

by Lauraine Jacobs

Māori food champions Kasey and Karena Bird share traditional family recipes that are ideal for Matariki.

Read more
Julie Anne Genter on bicycles, babies and what's going to make a better world
107579 2019-06-25 00:00:00Z Profiles

Julie Anne Genter on bicycles, babies and what's g…

by Emma Clifton

The MP made world headlines when she cycled to hospital to give birth. She talks about how this put her and what she stands for in the spotlight.

Read more
Toy Story 4: The beloved franchise reaches a Forky in the road
107472 2019-06-25 00:00:00Z Movies

Toy Story 4: The beloved franchise reaches a Forky…

by Russell Baillie

The fourth Toy Story instalment is clever, enjoyable and refreshingly weird.

Read more
Mitre 10 living wage ruling sets precedent for retail staff - union
Apple set to offer sign-in service to rival Facebook and Google
107596 2019-06-25 00:00:00Z Tech

Apple set to offer sign-in service to rival Facebo…

by Peter Griffin

In the wake of data-privacy scandals, Apple is beefing up protection for owners of its devices.

Read more
Understanding New Zealanders' attitudes to paying tax
107563 2019-06-24 16:28:59Z Business

Understanding New Zealanders' attitudes to paying…

by Nikki Mandow

We are pretty good about paying our taxes here, so why would we willingly go along with avoiding GST?

Read more
Border tax rort: Could you be caught by a Customs crackdown?
107530 2019-06-24 10:19:12Z Business

Border tax rort: Could you be caught by a Customs…

by Nikki Mandow

New Zealand retailers hit by a GST rort that has been going on for at least two years hope officials, Trade Me, ministers and even customers will...

Read more