Boy, Lady Bird’s exes sure are having a hell of a time recently, huh? No? Okay, how about this one- Boy, the Peter Hedges Cinematic Universe sure is off to a rough start, huh? I admit, I don’t quite know how to jump into this review. Ben Is Back doesn’t really give you much to grab onto. It’s of the sort of day-in-the-life drama that Hedges has made his name on, going all the way back to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Pieces of April. Here, though, he might be reaching a bit too far and pulling back only a wisp of where this story might have taken him had he only let things breathe a little. That claustrophobic atmosphere is built in but seems to have suffocated the filmmaker rather than have the desired effect on the audience.
Things get even stranger when we stop to consider that star Lucas Hedges, son of the director, is now on the long and growing list of his father’s characters who are complete strangers and puzzles to their parents. Having followed Hedges’ career up to this point, this is akin to David Lynch casting his own daughter as Laura Palmer. True, Hedges never takes things into quite the same psychological depths as Lynch, but his worlds are always of a piece, anchored by the profound and impenetrable distrust that parents and children sometimes have between them. Ben Is Back makes perhaps the best case for this as a workable model for the director to play with, but does so at the expense of anything resembling a cohesive narrative structure.
Taken strictly at face value, this is an into-the-night-style drama, with the characters playing their clockwork parts for a script that puts them through their paces and marches them toward a truly bizarre and underwhelming ending. Take just a few steps back, however, and the cracks begin to show. To put it bluntly, the story makes zero sense. There isn’t a single instance where the stakes suddenly escalate through the roof that couldn’t have been dealt with by simply making a phone call or locking a door. Hedges even seems aware of this at times, creating ever more elaborate circumstances for his characters to deal with before moving right along to the next thing.
Still, there are moments that ring true. Though I haven’t dealt with this level of addiction firsthand, I’ve seen the ways in which families can break down in the face of mental illness and the threat of losing children. One exchange in particular between mother and son had me so on edge I almost had to look away. I wish the director had dug just a bit more deeply into those glimpses into the more complicated and abstract nature of the family dynamics at play here. We never get a true sense of the consequences of Ben’s addiction and subsequent attempts at recovery — just an overall vague impression that it’s been pretty terrible. Without that background, we’re just left hanging. And when that whimper of an ending finally hits, it’s undeniable that it should have packed a bigger punch.