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November 02, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Ben is Back


Peter Hedges - 2018
Lionsgate / Roadshow Attractions

Whether strictly as a writer, or also as a director, the families created by Peter Hedges are always atypical. The family in Ben is Back is probably the most normal on the surface, that they are interracial is only mentioned briefly. It is when the eldest son unexpectedly returns home on Christmas Eve that the family unity is challenged. Hedges introduces the title character, a young man constantly vaping. Ben has been given release from a rehab clinic, and is set on proving that he has overcome his drug addiction. He is given a wary welcome by his family.

The film takes place over a twenty-four hour period. It may be considered a thematic revisit by Hedges as his earlier Pieces of April was about a Thanksgiving dinner that goes wrong, and the family in that film is also named Burns. Unlike the older film, Ben is Back is not a comedy. Even though it takes place on Christmas Eve, this is not a film that will be repeated for for holiday viewing. That said, the second half of the film does share some similarity to It's a Wonderful Life.

In Frank Capra's film, George Bailey is running through the streets in the alternate version of his town, learning what life would have been like had he not been born. The more people he has encountered from his life, the more disturbed he gets, with quaint, friendly Bedford Falls replaced by the grim, unwelcoming Pottersville. Hedges' film takes place on location in upstate New York instead of a studio set, but Ben's journey where he is forced to meet with people from his past is a variation on Capra. As the journey continues, the past revealed becomes increasingly darker, moving from upper class suburbia to the furthest edges of town.

Peter Hedges' son, Lucas, plays the title role. As Ben, Lucas Hedges convinces as someone who says everything with conviction, leaving it up to others to determine whether to take what he says at face value. Even though she's now fifty, Julia Roberts doesn't look that much older than she did in Pretty Woman, which is another way of saying that she looks way to youthful to be the mother of a nineteen year old. More convincing within a matter of minutes is Australian actress Alexandra Park as a young addict Ben meets at an A.A. meeting. Maybe it's the make-up that did a chunk of the acting, but the kohl smeared eyes tell us enough about this young woman's past. Onscreen for just a few seconds is an actor named Henry Stram as one of Ben't former teachers. Even without Ben's explanation, there is an immediate sense of creepiness and an unsavory connection. Peter Hedges' main strengths as a filmmaker are in his writing and in the acting. Taking place over Christmas Eve, there is some religious symbolism that is not subtle, but neither is it overly emphasized.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 2, 2018 07:10 AM