Peter Hedges comes roaring back
This Christmas, Holly Burns is getting an unexpected visit from her son, Ben. It comes as something as a shock because Ben’s been undergoing intensive therapy at a nearby rehabilitation facility for drug addiction, and is still very early – and very shaky – in his long, arduous road to recovery. On the surface, a family reunion can be festive, but it can also reopen old wounds.
Ben is Back, which opens Friday at A/perture Cinema, is an intense and insightful drama starring Oscar-winner Julia Roberts as Holly and Oscar-nominee Lucas Hedges as Ben, and was written, produced and directed by Peter Hedges, the father of Lucas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
It’s Peter’s fourth film as a writer/director, following Pieces of April (2003), Dan in Real Life (2007) and The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012), all critically acclaimed, with Pieces of April earning Patricia Clarkson an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Ben is Back also marks Hedges’ first credit as a producer. Well, his first official credit …
“Technically, I’ve felt like a producer in some capacity on all the films I’ve directed,” he said. “I tend to think ‘producorially.’ It made me very thoughtful about what I asked for and how much it would cost. I tend to make what could be called small stories, about people, and I want to make sure that everything is up there on the screen.”
With Ben is Back, Hedges was prepared to go the distance – and then some. “I knew when I started, whether or not I could find a producer, that I would do it myself,” he said. “I was prepared to sell my home, to be honest. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.”
Since making his screen debut in a small role in Dan in Real Life, Lucas (at one time a student at the UNCSA School of Drama) has seen his star rise quickly, earning an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor in Manchester by the Sea (2016), further acclaim for Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2017, Boy Erased and Mid90s last year – and making his Broadway debut in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery.
Although Peter had envisioned Lucas when creating the character of Ben, “I never imagined he would be in my film.”
The leading lady, on the other hand, did. “When I sat down with Julia with a list of possible actors to play Ben, she waved them aside. She wanted Lucas.”
Quite simply, you don’t say no to Julia Roberts.
“You don’t, you really don’t,” Hedges said with a laugh, but her commitment to the project and her confidence in Lucas prompted a reconsideration for Peter and Lucas.
“We had a period of time to talk through what this would be like,” Peter explained. “He had some questions about the screenplay and his character. It was not necessarily son and father – even though that’s what we are – but our relationship was between actor and director.”
Ben is Back can be perceived as a human drama and as a modern-day parable on temptation and redemption, told in a credible, forthright fashion that never lapses into melodrama, and in a tightly-compressed 24-hour period.
The Christmas Eve setting was an absolute from inception, “because Ben needed to come home unexpectedly. Had he just shown up on a random day, Holly would probably have taken him right back to rehab, but holidays are a particularly complicated time. For broken families, for people who suffer addiction, the holiday season is a conflicted reality. Therefore, it’s not particularly surprising that Ben would come home for Christmas. There’s a reason for it.”
It does, however, raise alarm bells. Ben’s sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is supportive but wary, younger siblings Lacy and Liam (newcomers Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser, respectively) are too young to fully grasp Ben’s condition and are delighted having him home, but stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) is outwardly suspicious and doubtful.
Not surprisingly, Holly is the most hopeful, yet even her resolve will be shaken and tested beyond what she could ever have imagined.
The Iowa-born Hedges graduated UNCSA in 1984, initially studying to be an actor but then branching into playwriting. He adapted his novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? for director Lasse Hallstrom in 1993, which earned an Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor) for a young Leonardo DiCaprio, adapted Jane Hamilton’s novel A Map of the World in 1999, then earned an Oscar nomination alongside Chris and Paul Weitz for Best Adapted Screenplay in About a Boy (2002), based on Nick Hornsby’s novel. He later worked on NBC’s subsequent T.V. series, which ran 2014-’15, and contributed to the screenplay of the animated Disney feature The Good Dinosaur (2015).
Exploring the widespread impact of drug addiction, the story for Ben is Back explores not only the addict and his family but those around them and the community at large – all having been tainted in some way. On a more intimate scale, Ben is Back bears a passing similarity to Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic (2000).
“I’m flattered by the comparison because that’s a film I love,” Hedges said. “I felt in my bandwidth that I could focus on one family for one day. I immersed myself in that family. I felt I was peeking in on their lives, and I felt it was important that, even though it’s a hard story, there had to be a lot of humor in it … (and that) the truth gets peeled back layer by layer.”
Ben is Back has also been compared to Beautiful Boy, which dramatizes the effects of addiction on Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet), the son of author David Sheff (Steve Carell, who starred in Dan in Real Life), based on the best-selling memoirs of both. Hedges, however, sees no competition between the two. In fact, just the opposite.
“It’s a film I root for,” he said. “We’ve all worked together. Lucas and Tim are friends, Steve and I are friends, our families have spent time together. There cannot be enough stories about this epidemic. The more stories there are, the better the insight we have.”
Indeed, Hedges hopes that such insight can have a far-reaching and positive effect.
“I believe we can’t coddle someone with kindness,” he observed. “No one person can stop another person with an addiction. They have to do it for themselves. But one person can say that they’re not going to give up on that person, and by that one person not giving up on them, they can make a change in their lives. I’ve certainly heard personal stories about that.”
And personal experience? “I would say that.”
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.