A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Ben Is Back is a drama that centers on the United States' opioid epidemic. Lucas Hedges plays the titular Ben, a recovering heroin addict, and Julia Roberts is Ben's loving mom. The movie takes place over one day and a long night, so there's more discussed about Ben's history of drug use than actually seen. Although there is use in the movie, it mostly takes place off-camera. Expect lots of strong language -- mostly "f--k," "s--t," and "a--hole" -- as well as candid and "read between the lines" descriptions of the side effects of opioid use, withdrawal, and the kinds of immoral/criminal activity that so often go along with addiction. A family home is broken into, and the beloved dog is taken or goes missing; there are also angry/tense confrontations. Parents should see the movie with their teens and talk about the realistic nature of Ben's addiction and how opioid use/addiction is affecting younger and younger users, especially teens who start off with a real injury and quickly become addicted to their prescribed painkillers. Director Peter Hedges (also Lucas' father) has said he hopes families will feel empathy for the characters and better understand the many misconceptions about addiction and recovery.
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What's the story?
BEN IS BACK chronicles the turbulent, at times harrowing 24 hours after recovering heroin addict Ben (Lucas Hedges) leaves a sober-living facility to visit his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), teen sister, and younger half-siblings for Christmas. Holly and her second husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), had no idea that Ben, who's only been clean for 77 days, was being temporarily released for the holiday, and Neal -- as well as Ben's high school-age sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton) -- believe he should immediately go back to rehab. But Neal also wants to make Holly happy, so they agree Ben will take a home drug test and then be allowed to stay for 24 hours, as long as he never leaves his mother's side. Things get progressively more difficult -- and dangerous -- throughout the afternoon and evening, particularly when the family returns home from a Christmas Eve church service to find that their home has been broken into and their beloved dog is gone. Ben knows his return is to blame, and he goes on a mission with his mom to track down which of his former contacts or enemies might have taken the family pet. Along the way, Ben hesitantly reveals the many frightening, self-destructive, and illegal things he's done to feed his addiction.
Is it any good?
Roberts gives one of the most powerful performances of her career as a devoted mother, opposite the equally excellent Hedges, in this emotional addiction drama. Writer-director Peter Hedges has brilliantly taken one of the pressing crises of our time -- the opioid epidemic -- and put one of Hollywood's most beloved actresses in the central role. Roberts is amazing as Holly, a wealthy mom in suburban New York who loves her son unconditionally and has the resources to help him but is ultimately still helpless as he struggles with the disease that could so easily kill him. There's no way for audiences not to love and empathize with Holly, whether she's smiling and greeting the other attendees of a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, yelling at her son to open a dressing-room door, or learning how to administer a life-saving overdose-reversal drug. She's luminous, even in despair.
Peter Hedges makes it clear where he stands and what viewers should consider without making the dialogue preachy. But it's obvious that, when it comes to addiction, the political is personal and the personal is political. Holly can't get the rescue drug refilled because it might "encourage" drug use, but her former pediatrician was once able to keep plying Ben with stronger and stronger opiates that got the boy hooked. When Holly happens upon that doctor at a mall food court, her quiet wrath is shocking -- but understandable. There are noteworthy supporting performances by Vance, Newton, and Tony-winning stage actress Rachel Bay Jones as a mother whose daughter (a friend of Ben's) died. But the film belongs to Roberts and Hedges, whose on-screen bond is both remarkable and heartbreaking.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the way that drug use/abuse permeates all of Ben Is Back, even though actual drug use is only shown a few times. Does that affect the way you perceive addiction? Why or why not? Are there realistic consequences for use?
Do you consider Holly a role model? What character strengths does she display?
What do you think about Neal's comment that "if Ben were black, he'd be in jail by now"? What does he mean by that? Do you think society gives white boys/men more breaks and chances than black and brown boys/men?
Holly confronts Ben's former pediatrician. Do you understand how this is relevant to the current opioid crisis? Do you know that more than two-thirds of heroin addicts started off taking opioid painkillers that were legally prescribed for an injury?
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