SYNOPSIS: 19 year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) unexpectedly returns home to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve morning. Ben’s mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), is relieved and welcoming but wary of her son staying clean. Over a turbulent 24 hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother’s undying love for her son is tested as she does everything in her power to keep him safe. Ben is Back also stars Courtney B. Vance (“The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) and Kathryn Newton (Lady Bird).
Ben is Back tells an emotional, harrowing tale that is all too-familiar in today’s suburban America, and shows us what life in a family is like during a 24 hour period when someone you love is an addict who has gone off the rails. Director Peter Hedges told us about the impetus for the film, and it’s personal.
AMFM: The movie is beautiful. It’s haunting, and scary. I have four kids who were raised in the suburbs, and it’s personal to me as well. But this story is not confined to the middle class, it’s touching everybody. May I ask what was your impetus to make this movie?
Peter Hedges: My favorite actor ever, a very good friend, overdosed and died. There are so many brilliant people who have died. Then a family member nearly overdosed and nearly died. I had grown up in a family that was riddled with alcoholism. My mother left home when I was 7, I didn’t know her sober until I was 15. Once she was sober, I discovered I had the most amazing remarkable Mom.
But when I started to see that people around me were dying from opioids and heroin, I then started looking into why. Why is this happening right now? As I did all my research and talked to many people, I came to realize that, as a lot of people know, it’s a major epidemic in our country right now. I wanted to write something that dealt with, and shone a bright light on a very hard situation that many people are dealing with.
AMFM: Many try to deal with it, but many push it back into a closet. That’s how they used to deal with it. “Oh, not my family, but look at those people over there, poor things.” But it’s everybody.
Peter Hedges: That’s right, it is everybody. And one of the best ways to combat the shame and secrecy that isn’t helping anybody is to show it. This is the story of one family, over one day. It’s a fictional story, but it’s rooted in so many other people’s stories of people I know, my own family, people I’ve read about, people I’ve met. I tried to capture what a day in a life in a family would feel like, so that people seeing the film might expand their sense of compassion, and understand how it impacts everybody in the family. It isn’t just the addict, it’s the mother, the father – everyone in the family is impacted.
AMFM: The choice of your son Lucas to play as the lead character, was that an easy or hard decision to make?
Peter Hedges: First of all, I wrote the script never thinking he’d be in the film. He’d been pretty clear since a disastrous experience as an 8 year old, with a one line part in “Dan In Real Life,” where I directed him, that he would never act with me, so I never expected he would do the film. I did want to write a script that he and my other son, who’s not in the film business, would be proud of. I never expected Lucas would be in the film, but when Julia Roberts read the script and said she wanted to do the film, she insisted that Lucas be in the film with her. She had seen him in “Manchester by the Sea,” she loved his acting. She thought they’d be good together. She started a quiet and persuasive campaign to get him to do the film.
AMFM: Was he willing?
Peter Hedges: He was reluctant at first – because who wants to be directed by their father? Even though I think we have a pretty good father/son relationship, he didn’t want to be directed by me. But when he thought of working with her, and the material and the character, he felt the story was important. For his own personal reasons, people he’d known. Friends that were struggling. He wanted to be part of a project that would be useful and impactful in the world.
AMFM: So this goes way beyond just a film, what would you ultimately really want people to take away from this? The solutions are out there, but we haven’t quite reached them yet, especially as a society here in America.
Peter Hedges: A number of things. I would like people who have been struggling to see themselves. I had someone in Chicago say “I’ve been clean for 6 years, I had no idea what I put my mother through until I saw this film, and I’m calling her now.” That was exciting. There are other people who say “I didn’t know how bad and how hard it was for people I know.” I would like people to understand addiction, and people who are addicts, (or substance use disorders which is what we call it now, and I think it’s a better term) – it’s not a choice. It’s a disease, it’s been medically determined.
I’d also like people to understand that there are all sorts of contributing factors, from the pharmaceutical industry to doctors that are over-prescribing medicine and not explaining the possible impact of that. Now, we’re getting better, we’ve made some improvements, but there’s still a big, big problem. You know, 80% of heroin addicts, their “entrée” in was prescription drugs. So there’s a lot of awareness that needs to be increased, but also we need to help each other and we need to not give up on each other. I know that’s vague in a way, maybe too general, but one of the things I’ve tried to show is that these are not monstrous people, these are human beings that are hurting and struggling. I think more compassion can go a long way.
And then at the end of the film we list a number of resources, where people can call, reach out and get help. I think the biggest thing is that there is help out there, and there needs to be more help. We need to help people get that help.
AMFM: The word “addict” is stigmatized. I especially enjoyed the part of the movie where the mom is driving the son through a normal, nice, middle class neighborhood, and she sees “that home, and that home, and that home” where her son got his fixes. Especially wrenching was the part where he reaches his former teacher’s house. (No spoilers here, watch the movie.)
Peter Hedges: I’m so glad, there was some pressure to cut that part, and I refused, thanks for validating.
AMFM: It brought home that these are not people from “the Hood.” These are people in your “Hood.” There is only one “Hood,” and we all live there. The segmentation of society dissolves with addiction, it cuts through all social classes and economic strata, and the solution must do that as well.
This is a must-see movie.