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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Ben is Back, Review: Super Mom’s benediction v/s Son’s drug addiction

Ben is Back, Review: Super Mom’s benediction v/s Son’s drug addiction

Ben, the titular character, is a nineteen year-old boy who’s come back home for a Christmas visit from his rehabilitation centre. A hardcore drug addict, he has been clean for long enough to earn his holiday. Yet, his visit is going to hurtle his family into a crisis they could never have imagined. Ben is Back is not the routine drug-mafia/gang-war film. Instead, it is a thoroughly watchable hearts and minds journey into the horrible effects of one singular addict on his family and his town.

Charming yet troubled Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) returns home to his unsuspecting family one fateful, snowy Christmas Eve. Ben's wary mother Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) welcomes her beloved son's return, but soon learns he is still very much in harm's way. Holly is relieved and welcoming, but wary of her son's drug addiction. His teenage sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), are more sceptical, because of his past record of disrupting their last two Christmases. During the 24 hours that may change their lives forever, Holly must do everything in her power to avoid the family's downfall.

She moves to hide everything in her medicine cabinet and institutes an eye-always-on-him rule. He can't even go to the bathroom without an open door. New truths are revealed, even as Ben does his best to settle back into family life, playing with his younger half-brother and half-sister, and his beloved dog, Ponce. But home is not just a place of happy Christmas memories; it also serves as a constant reminder of the enormous damage and pain caused by his malaise. Ben is unsure if he'll be able to return to happier times, but Holly will stop at nothing to get them back. And then somebody breaks into their home and steals Ponce.

In his dual responsibilities as writer and director, Peter Hedges runs neck to neck with himself. He studied acting at the North Carolina School of the Arts before turning his attention to film-making. Peter’s directorial feature debut was Pieces of April. Other films include Dan in Real Life, The Odd Life of Timothy Green and About a Boy, which was nominated for an Academy Award. On occasion, the script turns episodic, but each such occasion introduces a new, exciting twist.

Though he does not let the film peter down to a drug mafia caper, he gets pretty close to the genre near the end. To his credit that he stops short. Also, a couple of Mom and Son scenes are over the top, but then he comes up with a graveyard scene that really grabs you. The entire step-dad and sibling relationships of Ben are skillfully delineated. Drug addiction may not strike a chord with everybody, since it is only a minuscule minority that is victim to it, but the familial bonding and a mother’s desperation to let her love win over her son’s drug dependence are feelings that will resonate universally.

If Peter Hedges has won an Oscar nomination, here is somebody who has won it once and bagged three nominations to boot. Julia Roberts (51; Mystic Pizza, Pretty Woman and the first actress to command $20 million per movie, in 2000, for Erin Brokovich, which won her the Best Actress Oscar). She could start preparing for another nomination. Emotional roller-coaster, and dark humour too, she’s right up there. Watch out for the scene when she tells her beloved son that he has no right to say anything uncomplimentary about his step-father just because she finds some fault with him. And the scene in the convenience store. And the scene in the department store’s trial room. And the scene in the mall, with the doctor. And, of course, the scene in the graveyard.

It was Roberts who suggested that Lucas Hedges, Peter’s son, now 21, play Ben, and the pretty woman pretty much insisted. Incidentally, the Mid90s and Boy Erased actor is also an Oscar nominee for best supporting actor in Manchester by the Sea. Lucas, who looks a lot like his father, is a natural. You trust him, even when he warns his mother not to. You never get to really hate him, although his addiction has no sob story attached to it, and as a peddler, and one got others hooked so badly that death was the result, he ought to be loathed, as he indeed is, by some of his victims. If no Oscar nomination comes his way for this outing, it might be because Julia Roberts is such a towering presence.

Courtney B. Vance (The People v/s O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Hamburger Hill, The Hunt for Red October) accords the quiet, strong dignity demanded of his role. He has one of the most telling lines in the film. Making a case for Ben to be sent back to rehab, he says, “If he was black, he would be in jail.” Kathryn Newton (Paranormal Activity 4, Lady Bird, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) is a stunner and puts across her concerns at the return of the recalcitrant brother with a strong feminine feel. Rachel Bay Jones (theatre; film debut at 49) as Beth, the mother of Ben's deceased ex-girlfriend (she died of drug overdose, thanks to Ben), who has come to terms with her loss and yet the wounds have not healed, looks vulnerable and strong in mixed proportions.

Alexandra Park as Cara K, an addict who’s about to go into rehab, has a brief, though significant role. Michael Esper as Clayton, a local drug supplier is not your familiar drug-lord, yet steely and ruthless nevertheless. David Zaldivar as Spencer "Spider" Webb, a drug addict and one of Ben’s old friends, conveys the ambivalent plight of an addict, in recognising bonds and being at the mercy of his curse simultaneously.

A word about the editing. I am sure the writer-director must have indicated the cutting points, to keep the culmination of several crucial scenes misleading or half-done, due credit goes to Ian Blume for making sure the film flows along smoothly, without the audience trying to guess what they missed.

Ben is Back is not a broad canvas film with an intricate plot. It has a brief, compact narrative that runs through its 103 minutes with oodles of emotion and praiseworthy performances. There’s barely one punch thrown and not a single bullet fired. That’s remarkable for a film that has drugs as its core theme.

Ben is Back. Go meet him at the nearest cinema hall.

Rating: *** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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