Drug Culture Sovereignty vs. Family – The Harrowing “Ben is Back”


Photo credit: Mark Schafer. Courtesy of LD Ent./Roadside Attractions.

Lucas Hedges astounded recently with his wrenching performance as a gay youth unjustly maneuvered into reparative therapy over a false rape accusation in Boy Erased. Now, before the end of the same year he has given yet another jolting portrayal in Ben is Back as a teenager who leaves his drug rehabilitation program, just for a day, simply to spend Christmas with his family. Now how could anyone say that wanting to be with your family is anything but sweet and good!

Photo credit: Mark Schafer. Courtesy of LD Ent./Roadside Attractions.

However, Ben’s departure from treatment breaks his rehab contract, a contract made necessary because of how destructively out of control his life had spun. Breaking it carries consequences, which director-writer Peter Hedges (Lucas’s real life father) reveals the effects of with harrowing insight. The crossroads of family, civil society, and the criminal underground have seldom been so organically realized in contemporary American cinema as in Ben is Back.

Photo credit: Mark Schafer. Courtesy of LD Ent./Roadside Attractions.

Naturally, Ben’s mother, Holly (Julia Roberts in the best performance of her career), is thrilled at the prospect of having her oldest child home for the holiday. On the other hand, we quickly grasp that his teenaged sister, Ivy (a seething Kathryn Newton), and stepfather, Neal (a firm and steady Courtney B. Vance), are counterbalances to Holly’s subjectivity.

This devastating film’s interracial aspect is artfully layered into its larger mosaic. Ben and Ivy are the offspring of Holly’s first marriage to a Caucasian. However, she has two much younger mixed race children by Neal played by the adorable Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser. How chilling that even these two innocents and the cute little family pooch are drawn into the ramifications of drug use and the fiendish realm of drug dealing.

Photo credit: Mark Schafer. Courtesy of LD Ent./Roadside Attractions.

The chain reactions of Ben is Back’s unfolding story delve into very dark places: an egregious misuse of a doctor’s prescription power, a church congregation haunted over opioid abuse, and a seemingly sheltered town wherein the illegal drug trade has permeated inextricably and violently.

Photo credit: Mark Schafer. Courtesy of LD Ent./Roadside Attractions.

Arguably, Ben is Back’s most unsettling observation is its depiction of the vulnerability of treatment-oriented activities to corruption. Out of this, a significant twist occurs within the plot line that literally brings home the fact that drug trafficking has come to extend into our culture like an uncontrolled, if not, uncontrollable virus. One is made to wonder if drug addiction is now so beyond control, so deep and vast is its grip, that it demands some more radical solution than what we have now.

Filmmaker Hedges masters a heartrending portrayal of family crisis while urgently sounding an alarm over what has diabolically become the sovereign specter of drug infestation. Having come to infiltrate everyday life across the social spectrum throughout the nation, Hedges compels and impels us urgently to reconfigure how we approach the whole drug issue.

Ben Is Back
Opens Dec. 21
Edina Cinema & AMC Rosedale 14

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