This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ben is Back’ Mixes Familial Addiction Crisis with Suburban Thriller

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CREDIT: Mark Schafer/LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton

Director: Peter Hedges

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for The Profanity of Familial Frustration and Some Drug Use

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

Ben is Back reminds me quite a bit of Good Time, despite the two being wildly different in tone and purpose. But their narrative structures and momentum match up strikingly. Both are about all-night attempts to retrieve a beloved family member, with secrets, subterfuge, and drug use along the way. It just goes to show you that when it gets right down to it, outer borough dwellers who resort to crime aren’t all that different from upstate suburban families.

Where Good Time was about Robert Pattinson springing his brother out of jail after a botched robbery, Ben is Back follows Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) and her son Ben (Lucas Hedges) as they track down the beloved family dog in the wake of Ben’s history of bad decisions catching up with him. Ben has just unexpectedly showed up at home from rehab on Christmas Eve, and he promises that he is making an honest effort to stay clean. But then someone comes to collect a debt by kidnapping the dog, and the temptations to relapse shoot up exponentially.

Movies with premises like Ben is Back‘s tend to make a double-edged promise to their audience: they feature tremendous, heartfelt acting and have thoughtful and open-minded things to say about the opioid crisis, but they are also stressful and depressing viewing experiences. Beautiful Boy is a prime recent example that was overwhelming in its anxiety. But Ben is Back bypasses that disquiet, or at least sets it aside for the moment, with the urgency of its plotting. It makes for a cinematic experience that is not exactly fun, but certainly thrilling. And it’s not like it avoids the hard questions. Indeed, the matters of whether or not Holly can ever trust Ben, and how much his brain is even in control of how much he can be trustworthy, are brought into sharp relief by the occasion of finding the dog. This is what the opioid crisis looks like during the holidays for one family – there might be enough hope for them to make it through.

Ben is Back is Recommended If You Like: Good Time but if it were about the opioid crisis

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Relapses

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Wonder’s’ Lessons in Kindness Are Obvious, But Timelessly Valuable

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CREDIT: Lionsgate Entertainment

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, Noah Jupe, Ali Liebert, Danielle Rose Russell, Bryce Gheisar, Millie Davis, Elle McKinnon

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: PG for Middle School Bullying

Release Date: November 17, 2017

If you plan on seeing Wonder, please do yourself a favor and bring tissues. That is not a mark of quality in either direction, just a fair warning of what you’re in for. Of course, if you know the premise of the film, chances are you could have guessed as much. The story of Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a boy with a congenital facial deformity struggling to fit in at middle school, could not be anything but emotional. But the explanation for Wonder’s knack for keeping the waterworks running for two hours straight goes beyond the obvious. This is the type of movie in which rhetorically gifted actors make grand pronouncements about the importance of kindness and loyalty. Their insights are far from groundbreaking, sure, but their eloquence is a gift and the realization that people have had the courage to live up to these ideals is profoundly affecting.

Director Stephen Chbosky already demonstrated his emotional bona fides with the adaptation of his novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and with Wonder he has now confirmed himself as one of the best in the business for prompting a good cathartic cry. He pulls it off this time by taking full advantage of the academic setting. School is not just a place for learning how the world works, but also how to be a good person. It helps in that regard when you have dedicated educators, and Auggie has a couple of excellent teachers played by Daveed Diggs and Ali Liebert, and a fantastic principal played by Mandy Patinkin. They are not defined by their quirks but by their love of teaching. Diggs’ Mr. Browne is the type to write inspirational sayings like “our deeds are our monuments” on his chalkboard. It helps to be in an environment that reminds you of such simple, but necessary truths. Patinkin’s bow tie-sporting Mr. Tushman (yes, he’s fine with you laughing at his name) fulfills the bulk of the speechifying. With his words, he is marvelously generous, maintaining and spreading a positive attitude.

Wonder begins with Auggie’s perspective and narration, naturally enough. But it extends that generosity to multiple characters, making this less a story about overcoming physical defects and more one about how there are so many ways we can be cruel to anybody, but it is so much better if we instead reach out with kind gestures. The gift of subjectivity and their own narrated segments is granted to Auggie’s teenage sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), Auggie’s best friend Jack (Noah Jupe), and Via’s best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). The lesson here is clear and effective: you never know someone else’s full story if you haven’t lived through it, so it is always wise to allow them to share it with you.

Chbosky can be a little haphazard with this subjectivity. It is no big loss that Auggie’s parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) are not afforded their own segments, as we still get satisfying peeks into their interiority. But it would have been nice, for example, if we had gotten a closer look at Julian (Bryce Gheisar), Auggie’s most frequent bully. We do meet his very unreasonable parents, but for a movie that is so kind in all capacities, it stings a little that he does not have more of a chance for redemption.

When you get right down to it, Wonder is simply a force for good in this world, demonstrating as it does that kindness, courage, second chances, and cameos from Chewbacca never go out of style.

Wonder is Recommended If You Like: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dead Poets Society, Room

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Astronaut Helmets