Ben is Back takes on a pressing issue in our society, the onslaught of opioids that have flooded our communities, as drug overdose deaths have tripled since 1990. This morning I was reading an article, “Massachusetts Attorney General Implicates Family Behind Purdue Pharma in Opioid Deaths” about a company so obsessed with sales that it paid 600 million in fines for intentionally misleading the public about the addictive qualities of OxyContin. The kicker being that even after that admission and pay out the company expanded its efforts, sending even more sales reps to convince doctors, nurses and pharmacists to prescribe even more Oxy. Why? For perspective, one company memo details how through overprescribing just two doctors made the company 800,000 in only two years.
I believe Ben is Back will find an audience with the people and families who most need a message about addiction. Even though it plays like an extended Afterschool Special, with implausible situations that make you ask yourself, what exactly are the elements of an interminable movie? After a moving Christmas Eve mass scene, the plot shifts gears into modern day parable territory. A Dante’s Inferno meets Dickens’ A Christmas Carol mash up. It’s a good technique for the story but the pretext motivating the plunge back into the depths of Ben’s utterly messed up and devastating life choices seems flimsy at best for one so easily triggered. One character says out loud, “This doesn’t make any sense. What we are doing is not worth it.” I understand characters’ statements like this as a verbal agreement between the filmmakers and the audience. It goes something like, “We don’t actually expect you to suspend disbelief but if you don’t leave we can tell you what we have to say, which you will agree is a good message.”
I am not saying that I could have come up with a more convincing story. Or that telling a story like this is easy. I actually sympathize with this film and feel like the filmmakers and actors were trying their absolute best. The film does boast powerful performances by Julia Roberts as Holly, Ben’s ever hopeful and grieving mother, Kathryn Newton as Ivy, the skeptical with reason sister and Lucas Hedges as a convincingly angsty Ben, who knows that there is little he can do in the face of this crippling curse, his addiction. The situation is as terrifying as A Quiet Place but even more so because we all know that this national scourge and personal tragedy is happening in real life as we speak.
In spite of the strength in the acting, production value and sentiment in this film, the parts don’t ever come together to form a greater whole. The cause is a meandering story that strains plausibility and telegraphs its plot points miles ahead of when they occur. However, this is an intelligent film with a lot of heart that also has the possibility of spurring on conversations around this most critical of social issues. It may not rise to the level of a classic family drama as say Ordinary People but Ben is Back will provide a powerful message for those closely dealing with the problem of addiction and as a cautionary tale for many others.