The True Stories Behind Ben Is Back

Photo: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Ben Is Back is Academy Award-nominated writer and director Peter Hedges’ most personal work yet. The movie follows Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges), a 19-year-old who is 77 days clean, when he makes a surprise visit to his suburban hometown on Christmas Eve. He is welcomed by his mom, Holly (Julia Roberts), who is immediately and wholeheartedly consumed by the lingering traces of her son’s addiction. Over the course of 24 turbulent hours, Holly’s maternal instincts are put to the test.
Not only does the film star Peter’ son, Lucas (Manchester By The Sea), the story also subverts the traditional ominous narrative of drug addiction. Being so personal, it is no surprise that the movie is loosely based off of Peter’s real-life experiences and relationships with addicts. Ben Is Back, for the most part, is inspired by the directors’ childhood – having lived through the repercussions of his mother’s alcohol addiction.
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Peter developed an interest in the subject of drug addiction in the early 2010s after losing a close friend to a heroin overdose. Around the same time, one of his favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, also suddenly passed away from a combined drug overdose, and a family member of his almost died of an overdose. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the director signed up for a playwriting workshop in 2017 to help turn his anxious feelings into words — it was from this workshop that he came up with the first 10 pages of Ben Is Back.
“Over the course of my creative life, I’ve trafficked in broken, heroic mothers”, Peter wrote in a revealing piece from the Los Angeles Times. The director, who also wrote the 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, grew up attending regular AA meetings with his late mother Carol Hedges. After two failed attempts at rehab, she gave up drinking for good when Peter was 15. “When I was younger, alcohol hijacked my mother’s heart and she couldn’t love us enough,” he wrote. “For her last 21 1/2 years, she loved us too much, which turns out to be my favorite kind of love.”
Carol's tainted, unconditional love for children inspired the foundational ideas behind Ben Is Back. It's reflected in Ben’s fluctuating journey to sobriety, but is, more so, perpetrated in the character of Holly.
In a trailer of the film, we see Ben get into all sorts of trouble, and Holly, refusing to leave her son out of her sight, is placed in the center of all the chaos with him. “For the next 24 hours, you are mine. All mine – got it?,” she says, in a state of neurosis. “I loved the idea of the mother going into the underworld,” Peter said in an interview from The Alliance of Women Film Journalists, citing the parable of Orpheus and Eurydice as one of the influences for the film. Peter deliberately closes in on Holly’s pain, her neuroticism, her frustration of wanting to do everything right for Ben but not having a roadmap to guide her through it all, as a way of demonstrating how even the greatest heroes have their shortcomings. “Everything good in my life can be traced back to my mother’s sobriety. She showed me that broken people can — with the help of others — turn themselves around,” Peter wrote.
Ben Is Back opens in theaters December 7th.
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