“Ben is Back,” the soon-to-be-released movie (December 7th, 2018) with Academy Award winner, Julia Roberts, and Academy Award nominee, Lucas Hedges, written and directed by Academy Award nominee, Peter Hedges, is the best movie about a mother-child relationship that I’ve ever seen. Ever. Not only was it breath-taking and creatively brilliant, but it reminded me of the true meaning of giving this holiday season.
Julia Roberts plays Holly Burns, a remarried mom living with her second husband (played by Courtney B. Vance), two kids from her first marriage and two kids from her second. As a remarried mom with four children of my own, I could relate to so much that went on with that dynamic alone. In one scene, Holly says to her husband, who is trying very hard to help her in a way she doesn’t want: “How about you take care of our kids and I’ll take care of mine.”
Holly is a mom like many of us today: #momsohard, #momlife. She requires organic cranberry sauce for Christmas. When her husband calls from the store on Christmas Eve to inquire how important the organic element is, she says, “Very important.” You can almost hear his sigh as he trucks off to a second store. When her two little ones, played by Jakari Fraser and Mia Fowler, get “an extra 15 minutes of screen time!” they squeal with pleasure and rush off.
She could be me. Except her son is an addict.
Ben, played by Lucas Hedges, surprises the family by returning on Christmas Eve from his Sober Living facility. Watching Holly’s relief and joy at seeing her grown son on their doorstep gave me the chills. The expression on her face. The multitude of emotions ranging from shock to happiness as she clutches Ben and says, “Don’t let go.” In my sheltered world, that’s how I feel when I hug my son as he steps off the bus from sleep-away camp.
Holly parents Ben in the thoughtful, deliberate way she treats all of her kids. She urges him to buckle his seatbelt every time he gets in the car, even on their way to track down dangerous drug dealers. She drags him to the mall to buy a Christmas sweater, trying to match his complexion with the right color. She praises him for going to an AA-like meeting with encouraging comments like, “I’m so proud of you for doing this, for taking control!” The way I praise my daughter on her way to an elective session of Mathnasium.
Holly is fierce. She doesn’t stop trying to help Ben no matter how terrifying the places they have to go, literally and figuratively. You can see her fear. You can feel it. Yet she gives and gives. I spent parts of the movie covering my eyes, peeking terrified between my fingers. My adrenaline surged. I couldn’t even cry. I was too in it. On the edge of my seat. Focused, like Holly, on doing absolutely whatever it took to help her son.
When Holly puts herself in one risky situation, her other daughter from her first marriage, Ben’s sister (played by Kathryn Newton), cries terrified on her cell for her to come home. Yet Holly’s love and myopic determination to save Ben trumps all. It made me wonder, in that moment, if she was being a responsible parent to her other three kids. What about them? What if she died trying to save Ben and left the other three behind?
But she couldn’t stop. I wouldn’t have been able to either, I imagine. There’s nothing that can stop a mom fighting for her child’s life. Nothing.
I had a very close friend in high school who killed herself after battling drug addiction. We were at the same party senior year when a classmate offered us cocaine. I said no. She said yes. That’s all it took. The rest of the kids from the party are still scattered about leading functional lives. My girlfriend got so hooked that despite my pleas to the school guidance counselor and to her parents, despite connecting her to any doctors I could find, despite visiting her in hospitals, I couldn’t save her. Less than a decade later, she ended up lost and using among the homeless on the Santa Monica boardwalk, only to then escape another treatment center and throw herself in front of a subway. I think about her every day. If this were to happen to one of my children, I don’t know how I could possibly survive.
Addiction in this country in rampant. It doesn’t only affect one particular socioeconomic group, one race, one nationality. This is an equal opportunity masochist, sneaking its way into homes of all shapes and sizes. It doesn’t discriminate. And addiction can’t ever, really, truly, be cured, only managed, lurking in the shadows.
Companies like WeConnect, led by former French Open tennis champion, Murphy Jensen, have developed apps that work with treatment centers to prevent relapse. The Child Mind Institute is working hard to identify a bioidentical marker enabling children pre-disposed to mental illness and drug abuse to stop it from developing. Many other companies and non-profits are trying hard to fight the battle.
But ultimately, like in “Ben is Back,” the true battle comes back to the family. The fight at home. A mother's selflessness.
At one point in the movie, a fellow mom (played by Rachel Bay Jones) tells Holly: “We can’t save them. But you’ll hate yourself if you don’t try.” We have to try. This movie is an absolute must-see for any parent, anyone who has ever had a friend or loved one dance with the addiction devil, anyone who wants an example of fantastic screenwriting, acting and directing, and anyone who believes that our loved ones are always worth fighting for.
No matter what.
(Disclaimer: My brother's company, Black Bear Pictures, produced this film. I could be accused of being a bit biased, but I wasn't. I promise.)