Peter Hedges has an agenda. The writer-director behind the searing drama, Ben is Back, was seized by the need to tell a story couched in the heroin epidemic after the loss of a close friend and the near loss of a close relative brought the realities of this drug crashing down on him. These personal clashes with the epidemic butted up against a sensation that the uncertainties facing the country call on all of us to use our voices.
Hedges, who sat, discussing the film with a warm earnestness that makes one feel like the only person in the world, explained that he was feeling this was a time to get to the “serious business of whatever it is we do the most authentically and the mostly boldly. I started thinking about what kind of story I could tell that would deal with this epidemic … I don’t know if I have an Oliver Stone movie in me, I felt like I could write about one family over the course of one day.”
Ben is Back was his attempt to do that. And what a day-in-the-life it is — Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges (Peter’s son) lead this two-handed tale of a young man working toward heroin recovery and his long-suffering mother who believes in him more ferociously than anybody, except, perhaps, his dog Ponce. When Ben arrives, unannounced, on Christmas Eve, it’s to his mother’s tearful, tentative joy, his step-father’s concern, his sister’s skeptical alarm and his younger sibling’s unbridled delight.
The film leaves us as uncertain of his condition and his motivations as his family, and indeed, as he is himself. Quite suddenly, the audience knows what it is to come home, to return. And when his arrival in town triggers a series of old grudges, everything flips, and we follow Holly, as she plunges herself into a perilous underworld that will never again be invisible to her.
“There are elements of this story that are shocking on the page, but then when you get Julia Roberts to agree to do your film and that kind of America’s sweetheart grown up as a fierce mom taking that turn and going the way she goes magnified it even more,” Hedges said of the complex like his star walks through the events of the film. “It felt important to me that while it’s a small story in many ways that we found ways to infer and bring in as many of the outside aspects [of the epidemic] that we could.”
And speaking of Julia Roberts, yes, even when you’ve been in the industry as long as Peter Hedges, having Julia Roberts sign on to your film is a very big deal.
“She doesn’t need to do anything, she could just walk around being Julia Roberts. But I went out and met with her and she said she needed a little time to talk to her family. (Roberts has three children and chooses her projects carefully to keep her family front-and-center.) But we saw the film very much the same … There was no ‘if you do this, this and this I may consider doing this.’ She was all in,” Hedges explained.
Roberts did have one big request, however. “I went to the meeting armed with a list of young actors to play Ben because I knew Lucas weould never be in the film because he was very clear that he never wanted to be in a film that I directed. Ever. And he also wasn’t even available at that point. But when I sat down, I couldn’t even go through the list of ideas and these were remarkable young actors … but she didn’t want to hear the list. She wanted Lucas to do the film, even before she committed.”
Roberts began what Hedges called a “very persuasive, classy and respectful campaign” to get Lucas on board. The pair spoke and Lucas finally read the script and came to his dad to say it was too good to turn down — a memory that still brings a hint of a tear to Peter’s eyes. “That moved me,” he said.
But, even with the most iconic actress of a generation lobbying to make it official, Peter and Lucas took their time to really think through and discuss the project. Though they had their questions, they ultimately decided to move forward with the collaboration they both thought would never happen. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision for all involved. Lucas and Julia spark together on screen, you can feel their shared history, their enmity, their love, their frustrations.
“It made my job much easier because I didn’t have to get them to love each other on some basic level, they took care of that themselves.”
That fact, perhaps more than anything else, is what elevates Ben is Back to be one of the best pictures of the year and one of the most singular meditations on this epidemic to hit the screen. Instead of memoir, Hedges reached mountains of research and put them through the narrative filter of an ancient myth.
“The myth of Orpheus for me was a touchstone. It’s my favorite love story. Someone loves someone so much they go to the underworld to bring them back. So I knew Holly had to go into the underworld. I thought that what was going to happen was Ben was just going to disappear and we were going to stay with Holly. I didn’t realize there would be a phase of the movie where they were out together on a quest. That surprised me, but … this notion of them going on this trip together, the idea that in order to solve this problem he would have to expose parts of his past that he didn’t want to show her was really rich,” Hedges explained.
Himself the son of an alcoholic, he recalled waking up in the middle of the night sometime after his mother’s death and realizing that even during the many years she was in recovery and helping others find their path through AA, she never shared her full story with him, she tried to protect them both by holding it back. So, when it came to Ben and Holly and their quest through the underworld, he understood that telling the hard truths would be the thing that threatened to destroy them both, even as it bound them closer together.
As strong as each individual side of the story we see it, Ben and Holly walking the path of redemption together is the portion of the film that sears itself on the brain. It’s relentless and unforgettable, and emotionally rich without becoming overwrought. It also makes a pretty great case that Julia Roberts could be a crackerjack casting director if she ever gets tired of being Julia Roberts.
Ben is Back doesn’t pretend to have answers, but in the hands of audiences, it will undoubtedly start conversations that extend well beyond Ben. And for Hedges, that is the only benchmark of success he needs.