‘Ben Is Back’ Is A Compelling Addiction Drama That Separates Itself From The Herd (FILM REVIEW)

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In an era where caring about drug addiction catapulted from socially acceptable to fashionably couth, it’s paved the way for a new generation of stories that center (mostly) around affluent white liberal families and the lengths they’re willing and able to go to help one of their own.

As far as its overall template, writer/director Peter Hedge’s Ben is Back could be one of these, but instead opts to separate itself — in several regards — from the current pack. Not so much with its story, but how it chooses to tell it.

Namely, the family doesn’t seem particularly well off. They’re not struggling by any means, but their New York suburban enclave is never painted as well-off part of town. Similarly, there’s an undercurrent throughout where you sense the family has worries, including the cost of rehab for the eponymous Ben (played by Lucas Hedges, Peter’s son).

Beyond placing the film’s characters square in America’s vanishing middle class, it casts Courtney B. Vance as his stepfather, Neal. While it’s far from Neal’s story, who’s mostly relegated to a supporting character, his presence in the film is a constant reminder of that no matter how bad things get for Ben, his non-white counterparts are almost certainly enduring far worse.

He even explicitly says it early on, with a line that punctuates right through the kind of rose-colored codependence that Ben gets from his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts). While it doesn’t excuse itself for its story, nor should it feel compelled to, it’s a refreshing acknowledgement of the inherent privilege in Ben’s story.

Also, by isolating Ben’s addiction to the troubled pink cloud phase of recovery, where overconfident addicts feel empowered to tackle their problems on their own. As Ben surprises his family for an overnight visit and leaves the regulated environment of his rehab facility behind, pacing him in danger of a potential relapse.

Ben is Back also goes one step further by exploring the consequences of his actions as an addict beyond the emotional trauma suffered by his family. It does lead the third act vaguely into thriller territory, but still finds its footing throughout the conclusion.

Like the flood of Vietnam movies that bombarded theaters throughout the 1980s, addiction dramas have become the very special movie du jour, meaning some of the true gems will end up lost in the fray. Here’s hoping this isn’t the case with Ben is Back, which if nothing else, is cognizant of its own narrative entitlements, but never at the expense of a genuinely moving story.

Ben is Back is in theaters everywhere today

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