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Film reviews: Ben Is Back

Crisis point: Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts battle his drug addiction

THE BIG RELEASE

Ben Is Back

(15) ★★★★✩

JULIA ROBERTS lights up this festive-set family movie you’d definitely not pop in the same box as Elf or Home Alone.

It’s a snowy Christmas Eve morning when 19-year-old Ben (a superb Lucas Hedges) returns home to his family’s suburban home. For Ben’s mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), it’s a Christmas wish come true but Ben’s younger sister (Kathryn Newton) and stepfather (Courtney B Vance) are less thrilled. We quickly find out why: Ben is a junkie on an unannounced day release from an expensive rehab facility and, thanks to him, the last two Christmases have not been happy ones. Over the next 24 hours Holly exerts every fibre of her being to ensure Ben will stay clean. But can she prevent the seemingly inevitable?

Hot off the back of Beautiful Boy, this is 2019’s second awards-bait drama about a white, middle-class drug-addicted teen and the loving parent battling to save his life. That it’s a tale of white privilege is at least addressed within the script: ‘If he were black, he’d be in jail by now,’ points out Ben’s (black) stepfather.

As in Beautiful Boy, there are hints as to what went ‘wrong’ with Ben’s life to cause his addiction. However, here the story is widened beyond just one family. America’s opioid crisis is felt as an evil that can touch and destroy literally any and everyone’s lives, spreading through these affluent suburbs like the virus from some horror movie.

Thanks to the inbuilt ‘will he or won’t he use?’ dilemma, Ben Is Back makes for an armrest-clenchingly tense watch even without its slightly bizarre and uneasy spiral into thriller territory. Hedges and Roberts are both actors at the top of their game and this ranks with Roberts’ finest performances. Her trademark huge smile is here cranked up to over-brightness as the agonised, desperately positive mother exhausted by the effort of trying to stop her beloved first born from killing himself.

It’s a dark story, a testimony to fiercely enduring parental love while also representing a mother’s worst nightmare. Yet Julia Roberts shines through it all like a beacon of hope.

The verdict

Nail-biting family addiction drama lit up by a career-best Julia Roberts.

Girl

(15) ★★★★✩

WHAT if Billy Elliot had been a trans girl? Based on a true story, this painfully humane Belgian film follows the adolescent confusion of 15-year-old Lara (Victor Polster — controversially, a young cis man).

A nervy transgender ballerina at a top dance school, Lara tortures her body to become a top-level classical dancer and also to become a woman. Bucking expectations of such a story, Lara’s single father (Arieh Worthalter) is supportive both of her ballet dreams and her sex change. Even so, Lara remains a tortured soul.

This, plus the camera’s fixation on her naked body, has led to some trans activists slamming it as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘voyeuristic’. Given the current controversy about transgender women in sport, it’s certainly timely.

Under The Silver Lake

(15) ★★★★✩

SEEN David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive? Director David Robert Mitchell has. His gorgeously shot Lynchian-Hitchcockian homage is a millennial neo-noir set in the Hollywood hills.

Sam (ex-Spider-Man Andrew Garfield) is a scruffy 33-year-old drifter who falls for a sexy blonde stranger (Riley Keough, giving it her best Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer) after spying on her in his apartment block’s swimming pool. When she disappears, Sam sets out to find her, only to tumble down a surreal rabbit hole into LA’s dark underbelly that somehow connects a missing billionaire, a cute balloon lady, a dog-killer, a conspiracy theory called ‘the owl’s kiss’, a dead squirrel, a cereal box… basically, it’s red herrings galore.

This is a seductive tale of mystery and masturbation, boasting a lush, melodramatic score and an unusual amount of on-screen nudity (I can now confidently identify Garfield’s bum in any line-up). But it’s ultimately wrapped up in nothing but its own mystery, which — as the one- and five-star reviews that greeted its Cannes premiere testify — will either titillate you or turn you off.