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  • Geoff Cordner

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Back in 2009, within a month after the death of my nephew Daniel, I spotted on one of the Foxtel Movie Channels a film called Dan in Real Life. I knew nothing about it, and I’m almost certain I would have paid it no mind at all – if not for the title, which appeared to pay a forlorn homage to my recently departed, and much admired, teenage relative and friend. Open-mindedly inquisitive to learn more, I taped the film that night, although I must confess it sat unwatched for some time thereafter.

When I did get around to finally viewing DIRL, I quickly concluded that, in my eyes at least, it well and truly outperformed its modest IMDb rating of 6.7. The film revolves around the tribulations of its principal character – a widower, Dan Burns, played by Steve Carell – who is bringing up three tween daughters on his own. I thought the story blended comedy – sometimes genuine, laugh-out-loud humour for me ‑ with the emotional consequences of heartfelt loss in a beautifully poignant way; a combination that would not have been possible without an outstanding screenplay, and nuanced performances from the entire main cast.

It was only as the years passed from 2009 onwards, including more than one re-viewing, that I started to realise Dan in Real Life had found a permanent place in my unofficial list of all-time favourite films.

The days following Ben’s death in 2019 passed in a blur, which will, I am sure, come as no surprise. One very clear memory of that period however is a bus shelter billboard that I would pass regularly – most particularly en route to my mother’s house, and the North Ryde RSL Club, amongst other local destinations. It was something akin to the cruellest of all practical jokes, seemingly sent to taunt me by some grotesque prankster. A poster for a newly released film … entitled Ben is Back.

As I have written elsewhere, Linda and I found it virtually impossible to watch television, far be it a film ‑ let alone a film carrying Ben’s name in the title ‑ in the weeks and months following his death. And indeed, even fourteen and a half months later it was with some trepidation that I suggested to Linda we give Ben is Back a go when it appeared for the first time on the Premiere Movie Channel in mid-April 2020.

Painful as it was, I am so glad we took that chance.

Ben is Back is another of those films that will live with me, I suspect, for as long as I am able to remember my past. And not just because of its title. The performances by Julia Roberts (as Holly) and Lucas Hedges (as Holly’s drug-dependent son, Ben) are nothing short of extraordinary. Roberts in particular, to my mind, plays the role of her career as a mother who will do absolutely whatever it takes to keep her son safe.

But as we well know, good intentions, and all the love in the world, are no guarantee of success in such a cause, or of happiness.

If you have not seen Ben is Back – whether you are a parent, a young person making your way in a complicated world, or somewhere in between ‑ I encourage you to do so. It shines a light on the two things that are in the end, to my way of thinking, more important than anything else in this life: our health and wellbeing (both physical and mental), and the means by which we express and demonstrate our love for those we care about while we are here.

For Linda and I there were also a couple of Hang on. Rewind. Did I really hear that? moments.

The first of these comes within seconds of the character of Ben opening his mouth in the opening minutes of the film – when he talks about his roommate and idol, Timmy. Our Ben only ever had one full‑time roommate in his entire life: his older, and much admired, brother Tim (from January 2005 through to June 2007).

The second occurs when we meet, at the local mall, some of the earliest characters in the film who are not members of Holly and Ben’s family. It is not especially common to hear the surname of peripheral characters spoken onscreen, which only seemed to double our amazement when we discovered that surname to be Crane. With the possible exception of Cordner, there could have been no family name more significant to us than Crane – as it is the name Linda was born with.

The third moment (albeit the second chronologically) also occurs at the mall, when Holly is trying to reinforce to Ben what a limitless future he has ahead of him if he can just get through this formidable phase of his life. As I listened to her words I felt almost as if I was watching myself standing alongside my Ben in the hospital’s Emergency Department on the evening of January 26, 2019; stroking the top of his short spiky hair with the palm of my left hand over and over and over, hoping against all rational thought that he could somehow find a way to overcome the insurmountable medical obstacles that had been sent to test him; indeed all of us.

All I’m saying Ben is you forget how special you are. People look up to you, and they love you. You’re a natural leader, and you are so so smart … My point is, look, you lick this, and who knows how far you can go, and what you can do. There’s so much to look forward to.

Although watching Ben is Back left me feeling emotionally wrought, it also left me awestruck by the power of both the writing and the performances. The next day I found myself compelled to find out more about the person or people responsible for bringing the story to life.

You can readily imagine my disbelief when I discovered that Ben is Back was written and directed by the very same man who had co-written and directed Dan In Real Life more than a decade earlier: a man called Peter Hedges.

Feeling now like some kind of creepy stalker, but unable and unwilling to stop myself from doing so, I set about finding out as much as I could about the man who seemed to know considerably more about what was going to happen in my life than I did. (I say that, somewhat facetiously, because Dan in Real Life was released in October 2007, some 20 months before my nephew Daniel took his own life, while Ben is Back was first shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, just four and a half months before my son Ben’s accident). And as I learnt more about this Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and director, I realised significant aspects of our lives appeared to have proceeded with a remarkable degree of synchronicity.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, Peter Hedges was born, like me, under the sign of Cancer – only in the middle of 1962, rather than 1963, as I was. Like me he would marry his wife in 1993, and they would go on to have two children, both boys. Peter’s sons are now aged 26 and 24 ‑ as my sons Tim and Ben will be/would have been by this year’s end. And of course it is Peter’s younger son, Lucas – born in late 1996 ‑ who would portray the character of Ben in the film released in Australia just five days after the death of my own younger son, Ben (born four months after my 34th birthday).

When my research revealed the only movie directed by Peter Hedges between Dan in Real Life and Ben is Back was a production called The Odd Life of Timothy Green, I bizarrely but genuinely began to rack my memory in order to try and recall whether my older son Tim (born Timothy) had had some near-death experience in the months following the release of that film in August 2012. And things only got weirder when I discovered, whilst reading the newspaper the following morning, that if I wanted to watch Timothy Green I could do so on commercial television that very day! (And yes, you bet I did).

Having spoken to Linda, and my sister Diedre (Daniel’s mum), about what I had uncovered, but realising that my fascination with this series of mind-boggling coincidences had the potential to develop into something bordering on an unhealthy obsession, I determined to let the subject slip for a period of time.

But about four months later, following the initial publication of The Beniverse blog, I decided to see what else I could find out about this exceptionally talented, but spookily prescient storyteller. There was much less out there to be discovered in the world wide wilderness than I might have hoped. But after poking around for a while, I came across a clip on YouTube that told me pretty much everything I wanted and needed to know.

Namely, that this was a man worthy of respect and admiration, not just as a writer, but as a human being. A man who is intelligent, who is funny, who is seeking to make a positive difference to the world around him, and who, notwithstanding his talents, and history of achievement, appears to have remained refreshingly self-deprecating and grounded.

At one point in the interview linked above Peter Hedges is asked what it was like to direct his son, Lucas, in Ben is Back. He replies:

It was a joy. It was heaven. It was a dream come true even though I didn’t know I was dreaming it. It was a dream I didn’t know I had until I was living it.

And as I listened to him say those words I realised he was describing exactly what the experience of fathering the two extraordinary young men I am fortunate enough to call my sons has meant these past 25 years and more. Long may that feeling live on with me.


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