By Peg Aloi
Films like Ben is Back will not foster an understanding of how drug addiction ravages the lives of the poor, the incarcerated, the uneducated, and the less fortunate.
Ben is Back directed by Peter Hedges. Screening Kendall Square Cinema and AMC Loews Boston Common 19.
Opioid addiction is a prominent news topic these days, as our country struggles to come to grips with a health crisis that is claiming far too many lives. Many people who become addicted to prescription opioids for pain progress to heroin. Opioids are becoming harder to obtain; heroin is now plentiful and cheap. The urgent danger for heroin users is the growing possibility their next fix might be cut with fentanyl, a powerful opiate that increases the changes of a deadly overdose. All this exposition would seem more fitting for a public health expose rather than a film review, but it’s helpful to know what current events drive films like Ben is Back.
It’s Christmas Eve. Holly (Julia Roberts) and her children arrive home to their tasteful house in a suburb north of New York City, chattering about their plans that night: the kids are performing in a church pageant and Holly’s preparing a special meal. It’s what families do. They see a shadowy hooded figure in the driveway. Fear shifts to shock as they realize it is Holly’s son Ben (Lucas Hedges), who has recently been in a drug rehab facility. Ben’s sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is immediately suspicious and concerned when she sees her mother hug and welcome Ben. Seemingly inured to his sister’s hostility, Ben explains he’s doing well; he has only returned home for one night. Holly’s younger children are happy to see Ben; they are too young to understand the reasons for his absence. The kiddos are sent to watch TV (“fifteen extra minutes of screen time” is how their mom describes it) while Holly and Ivy (are you kidding me with these Christmasy names?) discuss what to do about Ben.
Holly’s first act establishes her expertise as the mother of a drug addict. She goes into the bathroom and clears every prescription bottle out of the medicine cabinet. When Holly’s husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) arrives home from work, he sees Ben before Holly can conduct interference. His immediate reaction is that Ben can not stay. The loyalty of Ben’s stepfather is pragmatic. As a black man, he is quick to note that a young black man in Ben’s situation might not have had rehab as an option. Holly realizes she needs to negotiate Ben’s presence in their home (it’s been mentioned there are many dangerous “triggers” here for him). She recites the rules for his 24 hour stay. He is to provide them with a urine sample (they have a testing kit at the ready; they’ve done this before it seems), he is not allowed to be behind closed doors, and he is not to be out of his mother’s sight. Ben agrees; his easy manner and humor is meant to show that he is really on the mend. Meanwhile, the younger kids and family dog seem delighted to have Ben around.
Holly takes Ben shopping to get him some decent clothes to wear to church that night. Ghosts from his recent past abound in the shopping mall, including one shady guy who makes brief eye contact with Ben, which sends him into panic mode. Another friend from high school, happy but surprised to see Ben, says, “Dude, I thought you were dead.” Ben’s misdeeds are writ large across the faces of everyone who recognizes him, including one mother whose daughter OD’ed and whose death is more or less blamed on Ben for introducing her to hard drugs. However, Holly blames others for Ben’s problem; running into the family doctor at the food court, a now elderly man with early signs of dementia, Holly quietly explains that the doctor’s careless prescribing of pain killers after an injury turned her son into an addict. When Ben makes a joke in the fitting room about using drugs — and then refuses to unlock the door — Holly causes a scene and the two are thrown out. Her behavior, yelling, swearing, and generally acting like someone out of control, is an expression of the built-up terror and anger she’s held back for years. She is no longer worried about appearances — Holly’s only motivation is trying to keep her son alive.
The pageant goes well. But when the family returns home and finds evidence of a break-in, Ben concludes that his past associates know he is in town — and they have it in for him. Holly accompanies Ben as they drive around his old haunts. He talks about past behaviors even she had been unaware of. The mood of desperation and hopelessness increases as Ben admits he is very far from being okay. Both Roberts and Hedges are compelling in their scenes together but, despite the title, Holly’s story anchors the film. A constant “what if” hovers menacingly over the narrative: will Ben use drugs again, and if he does, will it be for the last time? In Roberts’ powerful and memorable performance, plaintive fear thrums beneath Holly’s skin; it informs her every word, thought, and gesture.
As with Beautiful Boy, another prominent film about a teenage drug addict, the user admits he is a bad person but can’t help himself. Despite all her careful research and hard-won street smarts, Holly can’t really help her son. In The Land of Steady Habits, a teenage drug addict is not the protagonist, but the character and his fate are prominent enough to affect his entire community. What do the drug addicts in these three 2018 films have in common? They are all young, white, male and well-to-do. On the one hand, these dramas of moneyed white privilege contain a cruel and sobering epiphany: there is indeed one enemy that even money, youth, and social clout can’t overcome. But these films will not foster an understanding of how drug addiction ravages the lives of the poor, the incarcerated, the uneducated, and the less fortunate. And who, ultimately, is to blame? None of these films dare to suggest answers, let alone point a serious finger at politicians and Big Pharma. The social and cinematic clichés for young white addicts revolve around 12 step meetings and rehab. For young black drug users they involve crime and prison, or worse. Like the public health crisis they depict, these films reveal a debilitating contradiction.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.