Ben is Back Review: A Heartbreaking Take on the Addiction of Maternal Love

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Ben is Back Review: A Heartbreaking Take on the Addiction of Maternal Love

Illustration: Arati Gujar

At one crucial point in Peter Hedges’ Ben Is Back, a mourning mother tells Holly (a heartbreaking Julia Roberts), the mother of four children that they can’t save their kids.

The context for this emotionally raw exchange is drug addiction and death, but the obligations of motherhood guarantee that the sentiment is universal. The situation could very well lend itself to two mothers being tormented by their inability to shield their kids from the ruthlessness of the world outside their home. And so, maternal love in Ben is Back comes without an expiry date – just like drug addiction. The film investigates the aftermath of addiction, both as a raging epidemic and as a crushing emotion.

Ben is Back trains its focus on one day in the lives of the mixed-race family who live in the suburbs of New York City. It’s Christmas eve and the film opens with Holly watching her three kids (the youngest two are from her second marriage to Neal, a black man) rehearse for a Christmas show at their neighbourhood church. As they return home, they confront a hooded figure prancing on their driveway. It’s Ben (Lucas Hedges in stellar form) Holly’s eldest son and the family’s fourth kid. Ben is also an addict who is supposed to be in rehab. Instead, as we learn, he’d made his way home for the holidays.

Ben’s family digests his visit in contrasting ways: His two half-siblings are overjoyed at his arrival. His sister Ivy, is wary of him being in the house, holding on to the reminders of his previous visits gone south. His stepfather is concerned about Ben missing rehab, unaware that his voice of reason could be perceived as indifference (“If he was black, he’d be in prison by now,” he tells Holly). Yet his mother, Holly embraces him wholeheartedly, promptly making Ben the centre of her attention at the risk of alienating her family.

The context for this emotionally raw exchange is drug addiction and death, but the obligations of motherhood guarantee that the sentiment is universal.

And yet there’s a residual fear in all of them when it comes to Ben. Like Holly, they’re trained to keep an eye on him, almost waiting for him to relapse – so that they recognise him. Their body language around him suggests a complicated family history. Especially when Holly quietly goes about hiding painkillers and jewellery despite Ben’s claims of being 77 days sober. But the film never really spells it out, lending a suffocating aura to every frame.

Unlike this year’s other addiction drama, Beautiful Boy, Ben is Back never seems interested in being a character portrait of a recovering addict. It’s why the question of whether Ben will relapse is not allowed to design its proceedings; the film assumes he will. Instead, Ben is Back remains singularly determined with exploring the depths of addiction – of a boy to his impulses; of an addict to his painkillers; and of a mother to her maternal instincts.

So early on, when Holly informs Ben that he can stay only if he follows a set of conditions (“You’re all mine,” she tells him) – it’s as much a warning to an addict as it is evidence of Holly craving her own fix. We see Ben’s guilt when it dawns on him that his family is afraid of him; we feel his desperation to be loved at home; and are witness to his efforts to come clean despite himself. But on the other hand, Ben is Back also makes us recognise Holly’s addiction. She follows her son – to a bathroom, a meeting, and to a rescue mission – in the guise of a motivational quote, convinced that her love will win over his addiction. Even when he begs her to not listen to him, trust him, and save him. Like Ben, Holly lies to her family in the search for her fix. And just like an addict, she too announces her plans of giving up before dutifully turning back.

She follows her son – to a bathroom, a meeting, and to a rescue mission – in the guise of a motivational quote, convinced that her love will win over his addiction.

It leads to a gut-wrenching last sequence that intensifies that “heart in your mouth” feeling when Holly’s addiction collides with Ben’s demons. When it dawns on you that they were triggering the other’s addiction all this while. Ben is Back implies that both mother and son are essentially repeating the same cycle: He is as addicted to falling as his mother is to catching him. After all, some addictions have no cure.

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