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Addiction drama Ben Is Back tells the story of one family dealing with the opioid crisis ravaging America, as the eponymous recovering addict son Ben (Lucas Hedges) leaves rehab to spend Christmas at home and finds himself facing familiar dangers and challenges.
But the filmmakers hope the movie, which also stars Julia Roberts as Ben’s mother, will have broad appeal despite its smaller scale.
“It’s hard to find a family in America that’s not touched by this epidemic in one way or another,” producer Nina Jacobson told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the New York premiere of Ben Is Back earlier this month. “And yet it’s very hard to talk about it all at once and what you wanted was a story like what Peter wrote which was emotional and a page turner and an emotional thriller in a way that has a watchability about it and still has enormous compassion and complexity in how it looks at this struggle.”
Indeed, both Jacobson and writer-director Peter Hedges, Lucas’ father, have known people who struggled with addiction.
“For me this was a really personal script,” Jacobson said about getting involved with the project. “My eldest son’s roommate and best friend, when we began the project, he was in recovery. And he was a great, great kid, and I was very close with him and his mom, because we were the LA surrogate family because he wasn’t from L.A., and I would see just the faith that she had in him and even after a slip, the belief that that person can come back. And by the time we were in post, he had OD’d and passed away. I really lived that, my own hopes and my own optimism and then the crushing realization of how hard it is to beat this disease and what a roll of the dice it is. Even when you think — I was sure. This young man worked with us and lived with us for a period of time. He seemed like he was good, like he was sober, he was well on his way, he had realized all of the future he had ahead of himself, and he still managed to not get out from under it. Also working on Hunger Games, we were doing [those films] when Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed.”
“There are a lot of really funny, sweet, tragic things in it,” says Julia Roberts (with Lucas Hedges) of the movie. “The things families are made of.”
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The elder Hedges grew up as the son of an alcoholic and lost friends, including Hoffman, to drug addiction. And he incorporated his personal experiences, and extensive research, into his work on the film.
“In my own life, what became interesting was just that I grew up in a family where I had to lie a lot. We all lied. We pretended that we were better off and happier than we were,” he told THR. “So all of those dynamics and energy in play, I was able to access in writing this. I just know it. I know it so well.”
Through his research, Peter Hedges said, he “kept running across instances where people who were doing well and had put together a period of recovery and [they slip and] no one saw it coming and you hear this repeated. People say, ‘I didn’t see it coming.’ They slip and it made you wonder why, why is that happening. Sometimes they got clean and they were prescribed a pain pill and that pain pill brought them back in.”
He continued, “I was moved by the number of people saying that their child or their parent or their loved one struggled. And they’re putting it in obituaries. They’re writing in obituaries now things that five years ago no one would say: 70,000 people are going to overdose in America this year and die. It’s a staggering number. It’s an epidemic. And while this story is about one family over one day and I can’t bang the drum and scream, I did want to try to begin to talk about some of these things. The research also — I learned a lot about how — I was surprised by how many people’s entree into heroin was actually through prescription pain pills — either legally prescribed or gotten at a party because people passed them around. That shocked me. So there’s a culpability of big pharma and all of that, that becomes interesting.”
Courtney B. Vance, who plays Ben’s stepfather, also had a personal experience with opioids and hopes the film starts a dialogue about the dangers of such drugs.
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“I had a double total knee surgery about a year and a half ago and I was four weeks on oxycodone or hydrocodone — I don’t remember which one. I came off of it, and I couldn’t sleep. I had the shakes. So I know after four weeks I had the shakes. I can’t imagine the people who were on this stuff for six months, a year and trying to get off of it,” Vance told THR. “I don’t know how you get off of it after you’ve been on it that long, and I don’t know how much it’s talked about, the dangers. I know the pain, people in a continued amount of pain. But there must be alternatives to that. My mother had ALS, and we saw that she was addicted to it, so we had to go to medicinal marijuana. There’s alternatives, and that’s what needs to be discussed because this is epidemic.”
Jacobson also hopes the film leads to a dialogue and increased awareness of the scope of the opioid crisis.
“On the one hand there’s the kind of shared humanity, the fact that we are experiencing it collectively as a country and yet we’re not solving it collectively as a country, and the hope that the movie engages conversations and helps people to come out of the shadows,” Jacobson said about what she wants audiences to take away from the film. “Part of the reason it took so long for this to be diagnosed as an epidemic is because in obituaries, people were ashamed to say that their son or daughter or mother or brother or father had died of an overdose. And people would conceal the cause of death, and it wasn’t until people started to come out of the shadows and share their stories that you could at least begin to see the magnitude of the problem. So hopefully this contributes to a greater openness about those conversations and a compassion for the families and the victims who struggle through it and the demand that we have to do something more, better, different than what we are.”
On a more immediate level, viewers may also leave the film shaken by the final scene.
“I thought I was writing a different ending when I started to write, but when I got to that moment, I knew it. I just knew that’s the point where, it’s not that the film ends but the story stops. The day stops,” Peter Hedges says of the film’s intense ending.
And after hearing Ben’s various explanations for why he went home and seeing the journey he goes on over the night before Christmas, viewers may be wondering what the truth behind Ben’s return is.
“I think what it is is he feels as though he’s gotten on the right side of his recovery and has gotten so impatient and wants so desperately to have the love of his family again so he jumps the gun a bit and tries to speed the process up,” Lucas Hedges told THR.