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Oscars: From ‘Beautiful Boy’ to ‘Ben Is Back,’ Rehab Dramas Aim for Empathy

From Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased,” which debuted at the Telluride Film Festival last week, to Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy” and Peter Hedges’ “Ben Is Back,” both unspooling in Toronto this weekend, there is a thread of rehabilitation drama running through this fall’s awards hopefuls.

Edgerton’s film is admittedly something of a side note here. There is nothing to “rehabilitate” with homosexuality, but his is a movie about gay conversion therapy with notes of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Short Term 12,” and for the headspace it depicts, it fits. Each of these films features a protagonist — two of them played by 21-year-old actor Lucas Hedges — desperate to change the reality of his life.

For Hedges in “Boy Erased,” that becomes a journey of self-proclamation, of standing up to a Bible-thumping father and a demonizing community, and learning that the change must be theirs. For Hedges in “Ben Is Back” and Timothée Chalamet in “Beautiful Boy,” it’s about battles lost and won in the war against addiction.

All three depict the impact of these journeys on family, and with that come ripe opportunities for actors primed for Oscar pitches this season.

Russell Crowe and particularly Nicole Kidman are aces in “Boy Erased,” two sides of the coin in the life of a young man coming to grips with who he is. Kidman likely has an easier track to awards attention here than in her starring vehicle “Destroyer,” a dark and gritty crime drama that’s a tougher sit (and finds her playing a less sympathetic character). Her “Boy Erased” turn is reminiscent of her Oscar-nominated “Lion” work, and for a film that bravely never gets big emotionally, she’s the source of what little of that it allows.

In “Beautiful Boy,” Steve Carell is the parent, worried sick about his son who, like Hedges’ character in “Ben Is Back,” is the product of a broken home. Category placement is still being sussed out for Van Groeningen’s film, but both Carell and Chalamet are technically leads, with the story coming from separate memoirs penned by their real-life counterparts. If Chalamet goes supporting, he’ll likely have the best shot at recognition.

The Hedges-hallmark naturalism of “Ben Is Back” might make it my favorite of the three, and a big part of that is Julia Roberts’ performance as a mother determined not to give up on her son. She scratches and claws her way through the film in support of someone she knows, deep down, she can’t trust, but who keeps aflame the instinct to never give up.

There’s also, by the way, a streak of this in Yann Demange’s Telluride debut “White Boy Rick.” Bel Powley plays the junkie daughter to a trying-his-damnedest Matthew McConaughey, the film’s real Oscar prospect, with a section dedicated to her rehabilitation. (Not to mention the handling in Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” the best version of a classic story for how it finally makes its central male figure a sympathetic one. One simple tweak that helps achieve this: It’s the first version that depicts the character attempting rehab.)

Whether these films can actually break out of the festival circuit as awards contenders, or are merely fated to connect with audiences living through similar situations, is still to be seen. But it’s interesting to see them and their similar themes come together here at the start of a new awards season, and to consider the degrees of empathy achieved by the filmmakers behind them.

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