The Front Runner; Ben is Back; The Hate U Give

In the spotlight: Hugh Jackman plays besieged politician Gary Hart in ‘The Front Runner’.

THE FRONT RUNNER ***1/2 (113 minutes) M

The solid retelling of the downfall of presidential candidate Democrat Gary Hart in 1988 is primarily designed as a barbed reminder of how words uttered innocently or in a certain context can wreak wholesale damage to both people and culture. And the film, a first-class political drama, nails its targets as surely as the media nailed Hart.

Forcefully directed by Jason Reitman (Up In The Air), the film is essentially an origin story accounting for the venality of today’s rabid media culture, covering hot-button topics such as invasion of privacy, newsroom bias and double-standards.

During his thunderously popular campaign for the White House, Hart – played splendidly by Hugh Jackman – resents the grubby reporting of journalists about his alleged extramarital conduct. A jokey invitation to them to follow him around because they’ll find it “boring” is taken as license to do just that.

The gradual and spectacular collapse of his campaign and reputation is seen as the result of a new media practice where the constant content demand of the newly-born 24-hour news cycle turns allegations into self-sustaining, long-form news events.

Jackman plays Hart as a defiant, flawed soul who, in confronting the press, faces an adversary he slowly realises has become a monster. It’s easily one of his best dramatic turns.

The period recreation is rich in detail – right down to the tape recorders journalists were beginning to use instead of shorthand – and the cast features a fabulous ensemble including JK Simmon, Bill Burr, Vera Farmiga (terrific as Hart’s wife) and Alfred Molina in a memorable turn as the editor of The Washington Post, the paper regarded as the embodiment of journalistic virtue, a noble concept shown to be in the early stages of a decades-long decay.

BEN IS BACK *** (103 minutes) M

Without fair warning the wayward son of a picture-perfect blended middle-American family arrives home, seeking re-admittance. Ben (Lucas Hedges) has been in rehab for his drug issues and while his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is deeply suspicious of his sudden return just in time for Christmas, his mother Holly (Julia Roberts) is overjoyed.

For her it’s the perfect Chistmas present, complete with the appropriate biblical resonance: it’s the return of the prodigal son. It’s also the season of forgiveness, acceptance and faith, and Holly embraces the spirit of the moment.

The circumstances of his sudden appearance put her on edge, though, so she tells him he can stay for a day if he remains within her field of vision at all times.

They all try playing happy families, but a visit to the mall is all it takes for Ben to veer off the rails. For him, it seems that there is no escape from the world of addicts and pushers, however stern his resolve.

Bad old acquaintances re-enter his orbit and before he can do anything his family are dragged into a growing crisis.

Though it bears some strong similarities with the recent Steve Carell film Beautiful Boy, Ben is Back is a much better film. By compressing the story into the events of one night, the film’s tension levels grow. Forced to head back into the world he swore he was free of, Ben tries negotiating his way out. On his tail is Holly, a maternal force to be reckoned with.

Despite its Hollywood gloss – it’s a Julia Roberts film, after all – the film does venture into some of the grittier realities about those stricken with addiction. The chief point writer/directer Peter Hodges (father of Lucas) seems most keen on punching is the issue of trust. Several poignant moments illustrate how some addicts, however strident their vows to recovery, will violate any promise for one more hit.

Fun side note: As well as being a strong film about an important subject, Ben Is Back might also qualify as one of the best dog films ever. Just keep an eye on Ponce, the family’s pet pooch. As far as having an impact on the story goes, he more than holds his own against his two-legged counterparts.

THE HATE U GIVE *** (139 minutes) M

Caught between two worlds, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) lives in a constant state of social anxiety. Though she comes from a proud African-American family, the area they are stuck in is clearly not primed for social progress, so Starr attends a much-nicer private school a long drive away. Her narration tells us how she has to maintain two selves: a school self and a neighbourhood self, in order to survive.

Her delicately balanced life comes apart when a friend is accidentally shot by the police right in front of her. The story becomes a news sensation, but Starr strives to keep her anonymity, even though she is at the heart of the proceedings. Community tensions inevitably grow along racial lines and the streets light up with protests and fire.

A truly venerable performance from young actress Amandla Stenberg (Rue from Hunger Games) holds together a political film that tries admirably to show what a morally complex world this is, political correctness be damned.

Director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food; the Barbershop movies) makes sure that all sides get their turn, with every claim of injustice and prejudice getting a reply a few scenes. Example: the film states how wrong it is that cops are more suspicious of black people than white people, yet it acknowledges how it’s a reality even black cops admit to. Tough stuff.

The film certainly can’t be faulted for the courage of its convictions, though there are too many spots where the dialogue sounds like it came off a civil liberties pamphlet.

That said, and forgiving the film’s clumsily handled climax, it is actually a very watchable polemic that does a fairly good job being fair, always mindful of not letting the politics step in front of the drama.

Special mention must go to Kiwi actor K.J Apa (Archie from Riverdale), who is believable as Starr’s white boyfriend, and Common as Starr’s uncle whose position as a local cop allows him to give voice to some of the film’s thornier issues.