I was very interested to see this one when I first saw the trailer about a year ago as I was writing a thriller with a few similarities and I wanted to see what these filmmakers did with it, but then it kind of disappeared. So, when I saw that it was available to rent, I decided to check it out!
Not just that, but with Julia Roberts coming off of the supremely excellent series, Homecoming (seriously, if you haven’t watched it yet, check it out on Amazon Prime!) made me really excited to see what this film had to offer.
So, what is this about? (IMDB Page HERE)
A drug addicted teenage boy shows up unexpectedly at his family’s home on Christmas Eve.
Now, this is the logline on IMDB, but I have to be honest, it’s a pretty bland logline. I mean, sure, the “drug addicted teenage boy” part is a good description and I can see some of the conflicts just from the logline, but it made me think… great… what else happens in the film?
For instance, something like this:
When her drug addicted teenage son returns home unannounced for the holidays, the life of his single mother is thrown into a chaotic tailspin as dark truths are revealed and she fights to keep her son clean, even as sinister forces from his past threaten to pull him into oblivion.
I am biased (because I wrote it) but I think this is much better because it really focuses on who the story is about (the teen and his mom) and the forces that they are going to confront in the film (addiction, dealers, police, etc.) and what the plot is going to be (their fight to stay together and stay strong).
Now, I am all for the one-line logline, short and sweet is very sweet, but not if you are forgetting to mention or focus on major chunks of your plot, your characters and/or what makes your story unique. From the first logline above, I could list dozens of films that (generally) have that same plot/concept and it doesn’t make me want to rush out and see the film (or, in our case, read the script).
Just make sure that your logline pops and really showcases your voice and what is special about your story. That way, people will be lining up to read it and eagerly awaiting your next piece!
Now then, how was Ben Is Back?
Short answer: It was amazing! A really gripping, powerful piece.
— I really like the ominous intro – cutting between the church with Julia Roberts watching her daughter singing with the Youth Group and a figure in a hoodie trying to break into a home.
— Julia Roberts is great as always.
— I also like how Ivy Burns (Kathryn Newton) is always tense around Ben (Lucas Hedges) – it’s a lot of praise to her performance, but it helps us know that something is really wrong with Ben and/or with him being home.
— Also, the hint that maybe he is not supposed to be back (because he is home a day early for some reason) is a nice, subtle hint that something is off.
— The casting of Courtney B. Vance as the stepfather is interesting because it leads to discussions about how Ben has had a lot of chances and maybe wouldn’t get that many if he was black. It is a small moment, but really well done and there is lots to think about here and to discuss.
— The scene where Julia Roberts is looking for Ben and then sees him facedown on the floor is pretty intense – even though he was just playing with a dog.
— I also like that this is a well-acted contained family drama. Though, I am not sure that this would be an easy script to pitch without a name attached.
That said, the Writer/Director, Peter Hedges, cast his son, Lucas Hedges in the title role, so I am sure that didn’t hurt.
— Damn – the scene where Julia Roberts meets the older doctor with dementia at the mall and tells him that she wishes he dies a painful death because he got Ben addicted to painkillers when he was younger was intense and unexpected. It rattled me and I did not see that coming!
This is a great scene and worth checking out – either on Youtube or when you rent the film – Julia Roberts’ performance is filled with venom and it was so surprising, but it totally works for the character and story and is a great piece of writing and acting.
— Lucas Hedges gives a really great awards-worthy performance as a struggling addict. Especially during the AA meeting near the beginning.
I am sorry that this one seems to have been lost in the shuffle of awards season films as there is a whole lot to like here and some really amazing performances.
— It’s also a pretty powerful moment when Julia Roberts drives Lucas Hedges to the cemetery and asks him where he wants to be buried because he’s going to OD soon.
— In a series of upsetting moments during the search for the family’s lost dog, one tops them all – when Ben reveals that he had an “arrangement” with his older history teacher who would sell him drugs for… unspecified favors. His mother’s reaction to this revelation is heartbreaking.
— Another really well-done scene is when Ben walks into a violent drug dealer’s house and, instead of going with him, we stay with his mother (Julia Roberts) as she is forced to wait and wonder – which means that we, as the audience (or reader), are forced to wait as well and the tension rises with every second that Ben doesn’t come out of the house.
— The end is heartbreaking and yet, a little hopeful – no spoilers, but it is rare that a film dealing with such complex emotions and themes ends exactly where it needs to and doesn’t try to stretch out the ending with endless epilogues or a cheap, false happy ending. I am happy to say that this one nails it and ends with everything it needed to say, said. No more and no less which is a rare, but remarkable feat.
What Needed Work
— Now, I personally didn’t have a problem with this as it was a family drama and I did care about the characters, however, there were a lot of moments of “Talking Heads” or scenes where two or more characters are just talking back and forth to each other in a static situation.
Something to keep in mind when you are working on constructing your scenes. Blake Snyder recommends “The Pope in the Pool” method – or having a character actively doing something (like doing laps in a pool) when you have a scene that requires a lot of exposition or dialogue.
— The only exchange that felt a little forced in the film (and this is picky because the film is really great) was the one where they are talking about the girl who overdosed because of Ben and then he says “It should have been me.”
I realize that this is a real emotion (Survivor’s Guilt), but in a script/film full of genuine, subtle moments, this one felt a little on-the-nose.
— I do wish there had been a bit more conflict between Maggie’s Mother (the mother of the girl that Ben accidentally killed) and Holly (Julia Roberts) – especially when Holly shows up at the other Mother’s house looking for help when Ben goes missing. It would have been a great time to build up the conflict, as the other mother gets to let go of all of the emotions that must have been building up for years and could have been a really effective scene.
— Also, I wish we had stayed with Holly during the third act instead of seeing what Ben was doing – we could have met him at some point and inferred what had happened, but as I stated earlier, I think it is more effective to leave it to the audience’s imagination.
— Also, everyone treats Neal (the stepdad) like a jerk-off, but I felt sorry for him as he is just kind of thrown into this situation and his family refuses to tell him anything and doesn’t seem to trust him in this situation which is maybe understandable, but it’s still pretty rough on him.
— Also, Ben gets through his drug-deal at the end with very little conflict. He doesn’t get stopped by the police, he doesn’t run into anyone who wants to steal the drugs, he just returns with the drugs like it was no big deal.
*END OF SPOILERS*
SEE IT! This is a great film – great acting, well-paced and very powerful, this one is must-see, especially if you are writing a drama or any piece about addiction.
Retroactively, this one would be on my list for top films of 2018, but since I saw it in 2019, it’s secured a spot on my next “Top of the Year” list for sure.
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