Released: 31st January
Seen: 13th February
Every day in the United States, 130 people die from an overdose of opioids. Brought on by the pharmaceutical companies pushing painkillers that turned out to be highly addictive, this crisis has raged on through several communities and destroyed countless lives. While the phrase “Gateway drug” is one usually associated with pot, it should probably be used for opioids exclusively since (According to this piece by the National Institute on Drug Abuse) 80% of heroin users started by misusing prescription opioids. This is an absolute crisis that was inevitably going to be touched on by some form of media other than a documentary. So, how did Ben is Back handle this topic? Pretty well, to be honest.
Ben is Back does the interesting trick of setting this after the main portion of the addiction and even after Ben (Lucas Hedges) has done a substantial amount of rehab. For the majority of the film, every issue actually regarding what the addiction to prescription medication has done to this family is told in back-story and asides, but we’re never shown it and that really works. The only member of Ben’s family who instantly goes along with the belief that everything is fine is Holly (Julia Roberts) who doesn’t hesitate to do what she can to defend her son… right up until the second he forcibly rips that facade away and the haunting reality of the addiction is just slammed into everyone’s faces.
By setting the story after rehab, Ben is Back points out something important about addiction… it doesn’t end just because you went to get help. Going to rehab is not an instant fix and this film is very explicit about how this is now something Ben will have to deal with for the rest of his life, something that’s aided by an incredible performance by Lucas who shows you just how likable Ben can be when he’s not using, but also doesn’t shy away from what Ben has done. Moments where Ben has to open up and admit to ways he got the drugs that ruined his life, or how he ruined the lives of others, are powerful moments that Lucas handles wonderfully in a performance that is the best he’s ever given.
There’s also another key story about a mother trying desperately to get through to her son and keep him alive, played as expected by Julia Roberts. When I say it’s an expected performance, that’s because I expect Julia Roberts to deliver an amazing performance and she’s never failed me. Her performance as Holly should’ve put her in contention for an Oscar because every scene where she gets to show off just how incredible she is will make you sit up straight in your seat. There’s a shot in the trailer where she asks “Just tell me, son, where you want me to bury you” and I promise you that scene is one of the most powerful bits of acting I’ve seen in a long time. It’s one of the best performances of her career, which is saying something considering her career.
This story doesn’t shy away from the real problems with this addiction. It not only openly and cathartically calls out the doctors who prescribe these highly addictive medications but it also calls out pharmacies that carry them while refusing to carry overdose preventing drugs like Narcan while still carrying the very opioid drugs themselves (Something I did not know was a thing that was done but apparently, you can just refuse to sell life-saving medications while still selling the addictive ones). There is a sense of righteousness here, by actually calling out the reasons people get addicted, the film allows the events to feel real and the harsh reality of this addiction is put out there for all to see. It’s not something that bad people do just for fun, this is a real issue that happened because a kid hurt himself, was given addictive medication and the addiction took hold.
If I have any complaints about the film it’s that the ending feels very abrupt. I won’t spoil it because it’s still pretty powerful, but being powerful means that when we suddenly cut to black and the credits start rolling you’re left with an instant feeling of “Wait, is that where we end?”. I also do wish they had a little more for the rest of the family to do. The daughter (Kathryn Newton) gets some generally good scenes but the father (Courtney B. Vance) basically just sits home and worries and we don’t see him. Maybe it’s just because I think Courtney B. Vance is awesome and should be in pretty much everything more often, but he should’ve been able to do so much more in this than just be a voice on a phone every now and then.
Ben is Back is a powerful tale of the aftermath of addiction, how it really never ends and how it can affect an entire family. With some truly inspired performances and several stunning scenes that tackle this incredibly heavy issue, this movie will put you right in the front seat of an emotional rollercoaster and keep you on there for an hour and a half. A great little film with leads that deserve nothing but praise, highly recommended for everyone. Then after you see it, maybe look into one of those overdose medications and see if it’s available over the counter so you have one ready in case you need it for a friend. This is a crisis that probably won’t go away for any time soon, but hopefully the damage can be slowed down at least a little.