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VIFF 2018 Review: Ben Is Back

Ben Is Back

Ben Is Back is about a son (played by Lucas Hedges) returning home from rehab for Christmas, but under the watchful eyes of his mother (played by Julia Roberts).

Another movie from the VIFF anticipated for bigger release later on is Ben Is Back. The film consists of a lot of dark subject matter, but does feature a lot of elements that make it worth seeing.

It’s Christmas Eve in a New England home. The Burns family is rehearsing at church for the Christmas play. Unbeknownst is that their son Ben has returned from rehab to spend Christmas with them. He sees that the house has an alarm system since he was sent there. Smart parents. When the family arrives, they are shocked to see him there. Ben has fun with his two younger half-siblings at first, but mother Holly, stepfather Neale and sister Ivy are nervous. Holly decides 24 hours and Ben must be in her supervision. Ben agrees.

On Christmas Eve, she tries to take his mind off things by going to the mall. The first person they see is the doctor: the one who prescribe painkillers he claimed weren’t addictive, but were. Holly gives the doctor a piece of her mind. To take Ben away from the frustration, she takes him to a store. Ben notices Clayton, the town pusher, going down an elevator. As Ben appears changing in a store,  Holly notices Ben is taking too long and suspects the worst. Holly shouts to get Ben out.

After that, they go to a church hall that’s holding an AA meeting. In the hall are two or three teens Ben deals drugs to, including one that wants to meet up with Ben later and get ‘done.’ Ben agrees, but that infuriates Holly to the point she takes him to a cemetery and tells him to pick his grave.

The family with hope the Christmas play will take their mind off things, until they see the mother of one of Ben’s ‘customers.’ The daughter died and the mother is looking distraught. Ben is moved to tears during the show. Coming home, they find the house broken into and the dog is stolen. The father pins the blame on Ben. Ben feels he has to help the family out and get the dog back. Ben learns the dog is with Clayton who’s holding it hostage for money Ben owes him. Ben and Holly go out together to get it solved. However there are people who want Ben dead.

Ben soon leaves Holly on his own pursuit to get things done. Holly takes the other car and searches like mad to find Ben. Holly finds herself in the home of the mother of the deceased daughter. Holly tries to be friendly with her. The mother gives her something in case Ben overdoses. Ben meets with Clayton to get the dog back, but Clayton expects a favor involving drug trafficking. While Holly feels lost, Ivy calls and says she’s able to track Holly and Ban through her iPad. As Ben does the ‘favor’ for Clayton, Clayton ‘pays’ him with a special pill. Meanwhile Holly senses Ben in a solitary location, thinking he’s dead. The story ends with a hugely climactic moment.

I’m sure when a lot of you first heard the premise of the film, some of you probably thought “I know where this is going.” The film I’ll bet you were thinking about is Rachel Getting Married. It does seem like it’s starting in similar fashion as Rachel Getting Married where a child who’s in rehab returns home for a special occasion. One thing to say is that a child returning from rehab during a holiday or a festivity is a common occurrence in real life and something a lot of families experience on a day-to-day level. It’s a story that can be played out in real life hundreds of different ways. Some may be redeeming and some may even be tragic.

Ben Is Back is a different story from Rachel Getting Married. Kym goes through her struggles at home, but returns back to rehab as a stronger person. Those who saw Rachel know that’s the main theme is about healing and the struggle to achieve it. Ben Is Back is a different story. Ben Burns is home for 24 hours in a town that’s full of memories of his drugged past. On top of it, Ben is a former dealer who is responsible for leading other teens of his town to their own drug addiction, including one fatal. You hope that Ben stays as strong through the fight the way Kym was, but you see that Ben succumbs to a lot of the pressures along the way. The film ended with a different ending from the message of hope Rachel appeared to have. True, Ben’s ending was more dramatic and almost ended up making for a tragedy, but it made for its own story.

One of the key themes of the film is that of family relations. Without a doubt, the biggest relation of focus is a mother for her son. Holly has seen the hardest of the issue. She has to lay down rules for Ben during these 24 hours. She is also very suspicious Ben will back to his old ways during that time. One key scene is when Ben is talking about drugs to a teen he saw during an AA meeting. Infuriated, she takes Ben to a cemetery and tells him to pick his grave. Of course that was very impulsive and very wrong of Holly, but it represents the frustration of dealing with a child of drugs Holly is supposed to have a ‘tough love’ attitude about it, but doesn’t go about it best. The whole film is a case where Holly wants to keep Ben sober during that period of time, but the events become a case where it’s down to where she just wants him to be alive.

Other family relations play a part in the film. There’s the sister Ivy who’s very nervous about Ben coming home feeling he’ll be a wreck again. In the end, she becomes the one who is best in helping Holly find Ben. Then there’s the stepfather Neal Burns. He feels a load of contempt for Ben and his addiction. When the dog is stolen, Neal touts the whole blame on Ben. Even while Holly is searching, Neal doesn’t bother helping, even referring to Ben as ‘that drug addict’ instead of his own stepson. It’s only until the end that he’s willing to help.

One weak thing about the film is the ending. I know that it ends right at the very moment of the drama, but it does seem like it ends the film abruptly and way too soon. I know directors have two or three alternate endings for a film, but it makes you wonder if this was the right choice for ending?

This is a good film for writer/director Peter Hedges. It may not be his best film as he has had bigger accomplishments in the past, but this is a film Peter can be proud of. Peter’s son Lucas has become one of the biz’s rising stars right now. It started happening with Manchester By The Sea and he’s been on a role. This film is one of two films he plays a lead role in. I have not seen Boy Erased, so I can’t compare. He does a very good very intense performance here. His career can only get better. However the film belongs to Julia Roberts. Even though Lucas plays the titular character, Julia stole the show as the mother. Her emotions and feelings shown in the film are like so many mothers in that situation. She played the part excellently and stole the show. There were other minor performances that were very good like Courtney B. Vance as the stepfather with an axe to grind, Kathryn Newton as the nervous sister and Michael Esper as the heartless drug supplier.

Despite the abrupt ending, Ben Is Back is an excellent movie about the struggles of drug addiction. You might first think it’s a rehash of Rachel Getting Married, but it tells its own story.

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Movie Review: The Way, Way Back

Sam Rockwell (centre) gives Liam James (right) more than just a summer job in The Way, Way Back.

Sam Rockwell (centre) gives Liam James (right) more than a summer job in The Way, Way Back.

If you’ve seen The Way, Way Back, I’m sure you’d feel it should be described as a ‘summer movie’ because it’s not only released in the summer but is set in the summer too. But it’s not your typical ‘summer movie’ as it doesn’t fit how we interpret the term ‘summer movie.’ Nevertheless it is worth seeing.

We meet Duncan: a socially-withdrawn 14 year-old heading to upstate New York for the summer with his mother Pam, her boyfriend Trent and his daughter Steph. Trent is quite overbearing on Duncan chastising him about his shyness which doesn’t help at all. It’s obvious Duncan is not looking forward to this trip, especially since he wants to spend time with his father. At the beach house, the family meet up with Trent’s friend, the free-spirited Betty and her family including sullen teen daughter Susanna and young son Peter who Betty often chastises about his ‘lazy eye.’ Betty wants Duncan to be a play friend for Peter but Duncan is disinterested. He’s more interested in daughter Susanna but doesn’t know how to talk to her. The place is best describes by Susanna as ‘spring break for adults.’ Over at the beach house, Trent is the life of the party especially to his long-time friends Betty, Kip and Joan. That makes Duncan feel even more alone.

One day Duncan goes biking to the town on Steph’s girlie bike from years ago. He notices a waterslide park: The Water Wizz. Over there he meets the middle-aged man whom one day earlier was playing PacMan at the gas stop and wanted Duncan to keep up the high score. His name is Owen, a carefree easy-going personality, and he runs the Water Wizz. Here he shows Duncan about the Water Wizz with the employees and doing business, teaching him the ‘legend’ of the park, and even introducing a trio of boys he befriends. He also gets Roddy to show him how he sets up the female sliders to slide.

The experience gets Duncan coming back to the Water Wizz day after day and he even gets a job there. First duty was to stop a breakdancer from stealing the crowd. The breakdancer agrees as long as Duncan shows his stuff. Duncan agrees and he would be known at ‘Pop-N-Lock.’ Soon he learns from Owen that one doesn’t just simply work at the Water Wizz but the workers all share a common bond with each other. Meanwhile people back at the resort are wondering about Duncan and why he’s gone biking off so often, including Susanna who’s slowly developing an interest in him. Susanna actually follows Duncan one day, determined to find out what he’s up to. There she’s introduced to the Water Wizz and the two have fun together including Duncan teaching her the ‘legend’ of the park.

However while things are getting better for Duncan at the Water Wizz, things are getting worse for him and his family at the beach house. Trent and Betty are too carefree in their partying and Kip is oblivious to the whole thing. Meanwhile Trent is undecided about rekindling romantic interests with Joan who wants him back. Little do they know Duncan saw the whole thing. It’s at a resort party Trent is hosting at the house where Duncan impulsively blurts out to Trent that he knows what’s going on right for all to hear. The party’s over for the family. It gets to the point they all can’t have a normal dinner together or play a game on a rainy day without some friction. It bears hardest not only on Duncan but on Pam too as she knows the relationship will be over.

Duncan however finds someone to lean on in Owen. Owen reminds him Trent doesn’t know Duncan and how great of a kid he is and it’s more of Trent’s problem. He even offers to cheer him up by inviting him to Lewis’ good-bye party. Duncan comes with Peter and they all not only have a good time but Peter develops a new confidence about his lazy eye. Unfortunately the situation between Pam and Trent has gotten to the point that the ‘family’ has to leave the beach house and return home. This especially shocks Duncan since the people of the Water Wizz make him feel like a somebody although his job is still a secret to his ‘family.’ Yes, it is a goodbye to the town but not without one last ‘moment’ with Susanna and a golden last-hurrah at the Water Wizz that you will have to see for yourself.

The film’s movie poster advertises coming from the studio that brought out Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. The movie does kind of have the same feel as the two previous movies. Unlike the previous two, this film doesn’t seem to have much of a theme or a message to it. But like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, it shows adults to be the messy ones or the ones who don’t have their head on straight. Also like those two movies, it shows that sometimes the kids or teens are the ones who deal with the situation best despite their own flaws. You could tell with the stupidities of Betty getting drunk constantly and Trent’s cheating that these adults don’t have their head on right. Even the adults’ treatment of the children like Betty getting on Peter’s case about his lazy eye and Trent’s judgment and belittling of Duncan are examples of their stupidity. While Duncan may be sky and Susanna may be unhappy, they’re the ones that actually end up being the smarter ones in the end. Another unique thing about the film is that it showed the career-oriented adults to be the ones playing games and doing stupid things that hurt those that matter most to them while the workers at the Water Wizz are the ones that most have it together. Duncan should be fortunate to have bumped into the park by chance. It was the best thing for him.

This is yet another coming-of-age story but it’s not yet another. Sure the coming-of-age story has been done at great frequency and some would say this story isn’t all that original. What makes this coming-of-age story work is through the character of Duncan. Everyone who’s been through the high school years knows a teen boy that is very quiet and is an anti-social loner. Duncan carries those traits in a comical way without poking too much fun at shy teen boys. But what’s also unique about Duncan is that he makes his anger and frustrations present. The film succeeds in getting us to feel for Duncan and wanting him to find his place despite Trent’s overbearingness. We first think of Owen and the gang at the Water Wizz as overgrown idiots who should get a real job but we soon see them as the friends Duncan needed during his vacation. That’s the movie’s appeal: the young protagonist and the people that change his life.

Without a doubt, young Canadian actor Liam James was the star of the film. He did an excellent job in portraying a shy anti-social boy very well both emotionally and physically. Great to see a young actor like him do an excellent lead amongst an ensemble cast of established actors. Steve Carell was also good playing a person you just wanted to hate. Toni Collette didn’t have that showy of a role but she played it very honestly and added to the story. Sam Rockwell was great in playing a free-spirited middle-aged man. Great character acting also came from Alison Janney and Rob Corddry. AnnaSophia Robb was also very good in playing a young teen girl. Very different from the ‘sweet’ roles she’s been known to play. Also fun to see the writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash in roles in this film. Nat and Jim were writers who teamed up with Alexander Payne for The Descendants. This movie is a great way to show they can hold their own and hold it well. The movie also included a great mix of music both past and current.

Overall The Way, Way Back is a great summer film if you want to get away from your typical summer movie fare. This is a story you’ll really enjoy. Also movie fans should go see it if they want to get off the beaten path.