Ben is Back (2018)

I'd better open by recommending this movie, because if I start with the premise, you'll probably dismiss it without reading through the review. Also, it's worth seeing unspoiled - it's marketed as a drama, but it's got more than a little suspense mixed in (think In Bruges, minus most of the dark comedy), and knowing where it's going would undercut the impact. So if you like drama, suspense, and/or good movies, stop reading and go watch it. It's really not hard to track down.

I'll warn you in advance the synopsis for Ben is Back is going to read a lot like an afterschool special, so you'll have to trust me when I say this is something exceptional. The titular Ben is a recovering addict who leaves rehab to spend Christmas with his family. His mother, Holly, is both overjoyed to have him home and terrified he'll relapse. Some of the family is more cautious - the oldest of his siblings doesn't trust him, nor does his stepfather. Apparently, incidents like this have happened before, and they never ended well.

The first third of the movie feels like a comedy. The characters are genuinely funny, especially Ben. He's clever, and his interactions with his younger step-siblings are sweet. He occasionally suffers panic attacks, including one which drives him to go to the mall in search of last-minute gifts for the aforementioned kids. Holly, having vowed not to let him out of her sight for the duration of his visit, goes with him.

Things seem to be going well at the mall until Ben runs into a few of his old acquaintances, triggering another panic attack. He calls his sponsor and is directed to find a support group. As always, Holly stays with him. While there, we learn a little about the event that put Ben in rehab: he almost died of an overdose, and would have if the family's dog hadn't found him and Holly hadn't gotten him help.

That night, they go to church to see the kids perform in a nativity play. While there, they briefly interact with the mother of Ben's former girlfriend, who did die of an overdose. This leaves Ben even more shaken up. It's clear he blames himself for her death - he was the one who got her addicted.

They return home to discover someone broke in while they were away. Nothing valuable is missing, but the family dog is gone. Ben blames himself for this, as well, assuming (correctly) that it was taken by someone who knew him. He sneaks out to try and recover the animal. Holly goes out looking for him and finds him just up the road. She wants to go home, but Ben insists he needs to find the missing animal. He needs to make this right. Holly relents with the caveat she's going with him.

The second act of the movie is spent following the two of them as they dig into his past trying to locate the missing animal. We learn more details about the things he did, people he hurt, and people who exploited him. Finally, he realize the dog was taken by a local dealer he used to work for. Not wanting to put his mother in further danger, he steals her keys and abandons her at a convenience store.

Ben goes to confront the dealer, while Holly frantically searches for him. She doesn't have a vehicle, so she goes to the one person she thinks will understand: the grieving mother of Ben's deceased girlfriend. Not only does she hand over her keys without hesitating, she also gives Holly a kit in case of an overdose.

We don't get the full story for the background with Ben's dealer, but Ben owes him money. He shows up with some of what he owes and is told the dog will be returned in exchange for a favor, which (of course) involves smuggling drugs. A lot of this is handled through montages, so it's not entirely clear how much danger is involved or why he's being asked to perform a relatively simple job, but I suppose that doesn't matter.

He does the job and gets the dog, but of course, things aren't quite that easy. The dealer also slides him something extra, and Ben can't help himself. He drives to a farm and leaves the dog in the truck with a note containing his mother's cell number.

She receives a call from the farm's owner and races there, but Ben's nowhere to be seen. She opens the truck door, and the dog leaps out and runs towards a barn. She follows and finds her son with a needle in his leg. He's not breathing, but she's able to resuscitate him using the kit she received earlier. She looks on him lovingly as the movie ends.

Now that you've read through... all that... I'll add there's no way that synopsis does justice to the movie. In the wrong hands, I suspect this story could have resulted in something preachy or insincere. Instead, writer/director Peter Hedges created something that feels honest. A lot of credit goes to the cast. Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges (son of the director) are absolutely fantastic as the leads. They convey complex emotions and offer insight into the characters. There are numerous points in the script where characters make choices that are irrational on the surface, but I never once questioned whether they'd act as they did. Likewise, their motives and mental states are communicated through the characters' actions and the actors' expressions. This doesn't rely on forced monologues or explanations. Everything feels real.

Okay, not quite everything. If you want to nitpick, there are a couple moments when movie-logic takes over, but these are trivial. The drug-running sequence was the most obvious of these - it's not clear why the dealer straps heroin to Ben's torso in order to move it across town. You could probably concoct a backstory to explain why he doesn't just toss it in a backpack and take it himself, but it's not in the movie and it seems a tad excessive. But like I said before, the "why" isn't important here.

This movie is first and foremost focused on its characters. Ben and Holly are the best examples, but even the side characters feel fleshed out. At the beginning, it feels as though Ben's sister and stepfather are being set up as antagonists. By the end, you realize they're just trying to protect their family from going through everything again. And, it should be noted, they were absolutely right to assume that would happen.

This movie is largely about a cycle with no escape. Ben's story in the support group about nearly dying and only surviving because of the dog and his mother plays out the same way in the finale, undercutting the relief you'd expect to feel from having him survive. Sure, he lives, but his counter resets to zero, and there's little hope this won't happen again.

Symbolically, Ben dies and is reborn, only to presumably suffer and die again. It's more than a little reminiscent of the sacrificial king from The Golden Bough, and I suspect that's at least part of the reason this is set at Christmas.

I was extremely impressed with this movie. Apparently, critics agree - it's currently at 81% on Rotten Tomatoes (honestly, I'm surprised it isn't higher). It didn't do particularly well in theaters, but that's less surprising: this is an awfully bleak movie (appropriately, it opens with a choir singing "In the Bleak Midwinter," foreshadowing themes of motherly love and sacrifice). I understand that's a lot to ask of audiences looking for holiday entertainment.

But now that it's out of theaters and available for streaming, it's more than worth checking out the next time you're in the mood for a smart, tense film with a lot of heart. This is highly recommended, up there with the best modern Christmas dramas.