Ben is Back

Posted on December 6, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie, drug dealing, drug use, overdoses
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 7, 2018

Copyright Lionsgate 2018
Movies about families struggling with substance abuse, like real life struggles, generally follow the same pattern. A family member gets involved with drugs (or alcohol or some other addiction) and then there is the horrified realization of how serious the problem is, hope, betrayal, hope, back-sliding, incalculable damage to other family members, anger, recriminations, tears, hope, more back-sliding, maybe some more hope. We saw that most recently in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the joint memoirs of a father and son. But writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,””What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) wisely takes a different approach in “Ben is Back,” starring his son, Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By the Sea,” “Boy Erased”).

As he explained to me in an interview, Hedges has always been fascinated by the story of Orpheus, who followed the woman he loved into Hades to try to save her. As the title tells us, this movie begins when Ben (Hedges) unexpectedly shows up at home just before Christmas. We learn everything that the typical substance abuse movie takes two hours to cover in the first few minutes, from the very different reactions of his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), who is overjoyed to see him and his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), who is furious and horrified. (Nice Christmas-y names, there, Holly and Ivy). And then we see that Holly may be happy to have Ben home, but she has not forgotten who he is — she immediately empties out the medicine cabinet and hides her jewelry.

He says he got permission from the residential rehab program. It is probably not true, but what can a mother do? She wants it to be true so badly. She wants him to be home and to want to be home. And it is Christmas. Holly’s husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the father of her two younger children, does not want Ben to be there. Holly persuades him to give Ben (another) chance.

And then, she must follow him into Hades. An incursion from Ben’s old life in the underworld of drug abuse means that Ben must visit many of his former contacts, and Holly insists on going with him. She may have thought she knew and had experienced the worst, that she knows how far she can go, how far she is willing to go, but she will learn that none of that is true.

Hedges, as always, approaches his characters with a deep, tenderhearted humanity. He is clear-eyed about the genuine villains in this story, including those who make and sell legal opiates, and he recognizes the mistakes even well-meaning, attentive, caring people make. He also understands how family dynamics curb and enable abuse, and how abuse distorts and damages everyone in the substance abuser’s orbit. But he has sympathy for addicts and their families, acknowledging their mistakes and their struggles but always wanting the best for them.

We go backwards through Ben’s life (and Holly’s), meeting people who used with him and people who used him. We see how he first got hooked, one of the movie’s most powerful moments as Holly confronts the now-pathetic culprit in a shopping mall food court. We see the collateral damage, the grieving mother, the near-destroyed friend. And, paraphrasing the words of the old public service ad, we know what it did to Ben, but does Holly know what it is doing to her?

Roberts, who has always been one of the most expressive of actors, gives one of her all-time best performances here. From the film’s very first moment, as she persuades her younger children to do something with a small, seemingly harmless bribe, we see how much of her energy and focus is on managing the world for the people she loves. As she and Ben are driving through their own version of Hades, she keeps assuring her family that everything is fine and that she and Ben will be home soon. It is as though she thinks that if she can only persuade everyone, she can will it into being. The skill of this movie is that while it is clear she cannot, we wish she could.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of drug abuse, overdoses, rehab, drug dealing, sexual references, sad offscreen death, and very strong language.

Family discussion: How is this different from other stories of substance abuse? What do we learn from the scene in the food court? Why can’t Holly tell her family the truth?

If you like this, try: “Beautiful Boy” and “Flight”

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Beautiful Boy

Posted on October 18, 2018 at 5:18 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug content throughout, language, and brief sexual material
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Extended and explicit substance abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, peril, serious medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 19, 2018

Copyright Amazon Studios 2018
Timothee Chalamet gives one of the most sensitive and compelling performances of the year in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the books by journalist David Sheff (Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction) and his son Nic Sheff (Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines). The story is a conventional tale of a prodigal son almost lost to drugs, but Chalamet’s performance is extraordinary, more than fulfilling the promise he showed last year in “Call Me By Your Name.”

While both books formed the basis for the film, most of it is from the perspective of the father, David (Steve Carell), who lives in a dream of a home in Marin County with his artist/earth mother of a second wife (Maura Tierney, great as always) and two angelic small children. David lives a dream writer’s life, with profiles of the world’s most accomplished and interesting people in publications like Rolling Stone. He has a warm, loving relationship with his son from the first marriage, Nic (Chalamet). Perhaps because he likes to think of himself as young and does not want Nic to think of him as out of touch, perhaps because he and Nic’s mother are divorced and he wants to make sure his time with his son is pleasant, perhaps because he is too indulgent, when Nic offers him some weed, he laughs and takes a couple of hits. After all, Nic is doing so well in school and is so gifted and so, well, beautiful (even Chalamet’s stunning performance cannot distract us from the wonder of his hair), and it’s a beautiful day, so why not?

David does not know that Nic has gone past some recreational marijuana use. He is addicted to methamphetamines, and as we will learn from the expert David consults (Timothy Hutton), that drug changes the brain chemistry to make the addiction especially intractable. Apparently he has not been truthful about why he is there. The doctor thinks it is for a magazine story. But when David explains he is there for personal reasons, the doctor is sympathetic. David says he has just two questions: What is this doing to Nic and how can he help? Both answers are far from what he had hoped.

The movie goes back and forth in time, intended to show us David’s painful memories of happier times and his increasing understanding of how little he can do to fix this problem. But it gets discursive and distracting, making it difficult for the story to gain momentum.

And it never gets past the privileged, secular version of revival meeting testimony, another “was blind but now I see” story of a prodigal son who hit bottom, then went lower, then went even lower, and then found his way home, in part because he was born into a family that made it possible to treat his addiction as youthful folly and a medical problem and not a crime.

Carell is very good as the anxious, frustrated, and embarrassed father, who keeps trying to insist that he and Nic were closer than most fathers and sons, and that “this is now who we are” until he has to admit that this is exactly who they are. But it is Chalamet who takes this out of the category of just another Lifetime movie about heartbreak in suburbia. While the movie goes back and forth in time, Chalamet is always astonishingly precise about where Nic is on his slide to the bottom, whether he is strung out, in denial, trying to manipulate his family, terrified, or just whacked out of his head. It’s a dozen performances in one, each one a complex, beautifully observed portrait.

It is too bad it is not in a better movie. Perhaps because it tries to cover both books, it lacks focus. What is the lesson here? That parents have to accept that they cannot fix their children? That this country needs a better drug policy? Most likely it is that if you’re going to be a teenage drug addict, it’s better to be from a white family with money to pay for repeated stints in rehab.

Parents should know that this film focuses on drug addiction, with extensive and explicit substance abuse, strong language, medical issues, and sexual references and a situation.

Family discussion: Could Nic’s parents have done anything different to help him? How do the lyrics of the title song help to explain the movie’s themes?

If you like this, try: “thirteen,” “Ben is Back,” and “Augusta Gone”

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Entanglement

Posted on February 7, 2018 at 7:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler

Copyright 2017 Dark Star Pictures
How often we look back on our lives and think, “If I had just made one other decision, if I only had someone to help me, if just one thing had come out differently, everything would have gone better for me.” In “Entanglement,” a young man struggling with mental illness finds out that he almost had a sister. His parents were about to adopt a baby girl when his mother became pregnant with him and the adoption was canceled. She was adopted by another family. He decides to track down the woman who could have been his sister because he thinks that if he had just grown up with someone who could understand and look out for him, his whole life could have been better. It could have made sense to him. He might even have found a way to be happy.

Thomas Middleditch plays Ben, who is interrupted by a package delivery as he is trying to commit suicide. After he is released from the mental hospital, he is despondent and unmoored. When he hears the story of his not-sister, he decides that he should try to find her. Maybe she can still be the companion and confidante of unique understanding whose unquestioning appreciation would give him more confidence. He does not consider whether he is interested in or capable of providing that same unquestioning appreciation and support, but that’s pretty much the problem. As is often the case, mental illness makes it difficult for him to relate to others, even the compassionate neighbor Tabby (Diana Bang) who comes over to his apartment to clean up and check in on him.

Ben finds Hanna (Jess Weixler), who seems to be the usual movie manic pixie dream girl, but (1) Weixler, an exceptionally appealing and talented actress, makes her more than that, and (2) that is what writer Jason Filiatrault and director Jason James want us to think so they can surprise us with a twist of that tired concept at the end.

Middleditch is a talented actor too often relegated to shy nerd roles like the one he plays in “Silicon Valley.” As he showed in “The Bronze,” he is thoughtful and honest and the movie has a more nuanced understanding of mental illness than most, and an optimism and empathy that nicely balances its bittersweetness.

Parents should know that this movie has a frank but optimistic portrayal of mental illness, including a suicide attempt and medication. There are sexual references and situations and characters use strong language.

Family discussion: How did Hanna help Ben? What does entanglement mean to you?

If you like this, try: “Harold and Maude”

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Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Movies

PBS Tonight: Unrest, about Chronic Fatigue

Posted on January 8, 2018 at 8:00 am

Unrest” is a very personal story of the misunderstood and underestimated disease of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  Filmmaker Jennifer Brea was a Harvard PhD student soon to be engaged when she was struck down by a mysterious fever that left her bedridden. As her illness progressed she lost even the ability to sit in a wheelchair, yet doctors insisted it was “all in her head.” Unable to convey the seriousness and depth of her symptoms to her doctor, Jennifer began a video diary on her phone that eventually became the powerful and intimate documentary. Once Jennifer was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), she and her new husband, Omar, were left to grapple with how to shape a future together in the face of a lifelong illness.

 

Follow the hashtag #UnrestPBS and add your own story.

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Breathe

Posted on October 19, 2017 at 5:50 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Severe illness, medical situations with some graphic images, issue of assisted death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 20, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 1, 2018
Copyright 2017 Bleeker Street

“Plucky or pitiful?” a man asks his wife as they drive toward a grand British estate to beg for funding to provide wheelchairs for the severely disabled. They meet with a crusty old aristocrat (Diana Rigg, always a treasure) who says that normally she has no trouble turning people down but she feels she must say yes to them. And, because they are so dashed plucky, so do we.

Robin Cavendish called himself a “responaut,” a jaunty, adventurous term for a man who was completely paralyzed by polio in his 20’s. And this jaunty, adventurous, paralyzed man’s story is told, perhaps a little too lovingly, by his filmmaker son in “Breathe,” about Cavendish, who revolutionized the mobility and accessibility of the severely disabled in mid-century Britain.

But this film is less about his activism than it is about his love story. Robin (Andrew Garfield) married Diana (“The Crown”), and their unswerving devotion and determined spirits are the heart of the film.

Like “The Theory of Everything,” which it resembles, the movie opens with our hero doing something active. He races along in a car and then swings a cricket bat, trying to catch the attention of the bored beauty sitting by the tea table. Soon they are married and off to Kenya, where he is a tea broker and she goes along with him for the fun of it. They are blissfully happy until, just after she tells him she is pregnant, he becomes very ill with polio, paralyzed from the neck down, and given just three months to live.

She manages to get him back to England, where he is put in a ward with other paralyzed men. He cannot speak. He cannot move. He cannot think of any reason to see Diana or the baby or to try to live. When a priest comes by with platitudes, he manages to spit at him.

But Diana’s devotion and his restored ability to speak inspire him to insist on going home. Nothing like that has ever been tried before and the doctor in charge forbids it. Another patient bets him a fiver that he won’t last. But he does. And he works with a friend to invent a wheelchair with a respirator that gives him mobility.

First-time director Andy Serkis (the motion capture actor from “Planet of the Apes” and “Lord of the Rings”) has a disarmingly light touch. The escape from the hospital is accompanied by the kind of musical score we might expect in a heist film with more humor than tension. Plus, if there’s anything better than one Tom Hollander in a movie, it is two Tom Hollanders, utterly charming playing Diana’s affectionate but eccentric twin brothers. Most of the dialog is delivered with an understated smile, the kind of “Hullo, darling,” we used to get in movies of the 1930’s. I found that endearing. This is very much a love story, not just between Diana and Robin but between a son and his parents.

Parents should know that this film includes severe illness and paralysis, some graphic and disturbing images, some sexual references and situation, and the issue of assisted death.

Family discussion: What made Robin different from the other patients? Do you agree with his decision about when to die?

If you like this, try: “The Theory of Everything” and “The Intouchables”

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