Directed By Peter Hedges
Starring – Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance
The Plot – Follows the charming yet troubled Ben Burns (Hedges), who returns home to his unsuspecting family one fateful Christmas Eve. Ben’s wary mother Holly Burns (Roberts) welcomes her beloved son’s return, but soon learns he is still very much in harm’s way. During the 24 hours that may change their lives forever, Holly must do everything in her power to avoid the family’s downfall.
Rated R for adult language throughout and some drug use
– Stuart Dryburgh’s expressionist approach to the cold strokes of cinematography he’s painting. In setting this film in the countryside of New York, not only do we get the right kind of vibe and feel for the family atmosphere, complete with snowy and isolated setting, but we also get Stuart’s masterful greying color pallet that warms like a fog throughout the film. Beyond this presentation feeling unforgiving and shallow, you really conjure up the immense weight that lies on this family’s shoulders, and makes the past a very prominent character of its own for where the story currently stands.
– Detailed direction from Hedges that demands more of its audience. I appreciate any film where the small matters of a scene, or something that is taking place in the background, is more important than it comes across in real time, and that’s surely what we have here. Throughout the picture, we the audience are able to watch a scene play out and interpret it in our own ways, and it may be right or it may be wrong, but the point is that Hedges opens the door to discussion, periodically slipping you in further and further to the compelling nature of this slow-burn drama. Hedges has always been a director who refuses to spoon-fed his audience the details, and it’s more effective when the actors themselves can play out the intention of a scene without giving away the password that links it all together.
– Speaking of performances…. Roberts and Hedges give riveting and committed turns as their respective characters. Not that the supporting cast is particularly bad, but this is clearly a two person show, as the duo take us through enough fallen tears and repressed aggression about the torture they’ve endured to constantly command the stage. Roberts continues her legendary career without ever losing a step, and her greatest quality is in the undying love that she expresses constantly for the child who has given her no reason to. Hedges gives the best performance of his young career, serving as a very troubled and haunted protagonist by the decisions that have followed him repeatedly. The best parts of the film are definitely when these two share the screen with little distraction elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them are in the conversation for academy recognition.
– Mother/Son dynamic. The biggest positive for me in terms of my enjoyment from this movie is definitely the relationship between protector and cub that is tested endlessly. If anything, this is a testament to a Mother’s will, reminding us that no matter what her love will pursue, and as the film evolves into that search mystery in the second half, the bond is illustrated in such a way that brings them closer with each startling revelation she learns about him. It makes me almost wish that this film was released on Mother’s Day weekend, as the film colorfully illustrates this important job without hesitation, providing a surefire must-see for Mothers everywhere. On a side note, it’s interesting and extremely rare that Hedges cast his own son in the title role, and I feel like this allows him to feel those impacts and tender moments more exclusively when it’s his own kin experiencing them first-hand.
– A candid look inside of life as an addict. There have been a few films that cover the topic of addiction amongst adolescence this year, but none with the kind of conviction and focus as that of “Ben Is Back”. Far beyond this documenting the shame and mistrust that Ben endures in being re-introduced to society, it’s also the little things like the way people look at him and follow him to the oddest corners that offer insight into the uphill climb that they will face every day for the rest of their lives. This side of the material gave Peter Hedges as a screenwriter a very psychological sense, and puts us the viewer in the shoes of them frequently to taste the very bitter taste of alienation that only they must endure.
– My favorite scene. There’s an instance early on in the first act, where Roberts runs into the doctor who prescribed Ben painkillers, thus enabling him into the world of drugs that have torn her family apart. It is every bit as therapeutic as it is blunt with honesty, as Holly utters the line “I hope you die a horrible death”, leaving to a shock not only on the face of the man she’s talking to, but also to the delight of the audience, who are still seeing these new sides to Roberts personality. It’s rare that we ever get a face for the problem, and that’s why I found this scene rewarding. It allows Roberts the chance to be that unspoken majority who have been affected by mis-prescribing, and give us a scene to vent said frustrations. Funny, menacing, and even poignant.
– Conventional but unpredictable. Despite the fact that other films have touched on these familiar instances before, there are enough twists and turns in the material to constantly keep the audience engaged in what’s transpiring. More than anything, it’s in the genre twist of the second act that elevates this film from a family drama to a midnight search party. What follows is a barrage of uncertainty and cat-and-mouse leverage between Mother and Son that plays wonderfully with the pacing of this 98 minute gut-wrenching.
– Pedestrian photography. Despite the cinematography in the movie looking so beautifully haunting and anything but transparent, the movement of the camera, as well as camera lens used for the picture are constantly distracting to the unfolding narrative. One such instance of the former is in a fight sequence that is sloppily telegraphed and thoroughly out of frame. This is Resident Evil levels of photography, and it’s disappointing to say the least considering everything else is top notch on the production value. On the lens switch, there’s this obvious texture change for certain scenes, one such involving a cell phone rendering, that feels completely foreign from the rest of the depictions. If a film has a valuable reason for doing this, it’s acceptable, but a change this different makes the transitions lacking syntheticism, and I think it’s a mistake to include them three times during the film.
– Honest criminals? One of my biggest problems with the character outlines of this film is this constant manipulation that these criminals being questioned give up valuable information on their dealer without hesitation. Keep in mind that this is just a Mother and Son asking these people these questions, and they repeatedly provide them the honest, correct answer neatly gift-wrapped. It’s not a big problem, it just doesn’t feel honest considering other scenes of questioning in movies often involve a struggle or a backlash of some kind that is never present once during the many scenes in this movie.
– One major problem. Miscommunication is the constant plague in a film that is fighting for frequent urgency. What little it does manage to emit is in the form of these misunderstandings between characters that could easily be trimmed in a world other than film. One such example takes place when Ben repeatedly tells his Mother that he’s in trouble, only for her to overlook it every single time. The ending scene as well could easily be fixed and suffer no worry if a character just takes the time to return a certain matter of importance to the family’s house, instead of leaving their location cryptic for them to worry. I’m sorry I can’t explain that better because it will give away the scene, but you’ll understand what I mean when you watch it.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-