Besides being a terrific young actor, Lucas Hedges is also the son of Peter Hedges, who is the director of such films as Dan in Real Life and The Odd Life of Timothy Green. You might think that their first time working together would be a showcase for the Oscar-nominated star, but that’s not the case with Ben Is Back. While Lucas Hedges is quite good here, the movie turns out to be one of the best vehicles Julia Roberts has had in years.
She plays Holly Burns, a twice-married mother of three who is surprised on Christmas Eve when her oldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges) suddenly turns up unannounced at her family’s home in upstate New York. He’s supposed to be in drug rehab, but he says he has a green light from the clinic and will only be there for Christmas Day. It’s up to Holly to give him a soft landing, since his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton), his stepdad (Courtney B. Vance), and the entire community are frosty towards him because of the events that landed Ben in rehab in the first place.
You don’t have to be a seasoned moviegoer to suss out what those events might be, and there are clunky bits of business with Ivy tracking Ben’s phone. Yet I find I like this film better than the season’s other drug-addiction drama, Beautiful Boy, and it’s precisely because this film is more conventional. I did like the nonlinear structure of Felix van Groeningen’s movie insofar as it mimicked the tedium of the cycle that an addict and his loved ones go through, but in the end, it became a self-defeating device that felt like misery piling on misery. Ben Is Back keeps the focus on a short period of time, as Ben’s drug debts land him in further trouble. He ditches his mom, and she goes on a grueling overnight odyssey through her town’s drug scene to find him, not knowing whether he’s settling past accounts or getting high.
It has been awhile since Roberts gave a performance that made us all go, “Damn! She’s really good!” (I haven’t seen her in the TV miniseries Homecoming, so I may be missing out.) She still flashes that famous toothy smile of hers, but here you can sense the wild desperation behind it, as Holly tries to convince her family that this time, Ben really has gone straight and isn’t going to relapse again. Privately, she’s under no such illusions, making him take a drug test on the spot and standing in the bathroom doorway while he pees, and later taking him to a cemetery and asking him to pick out his own burial plot. We see the steelier version of her when she dangles a dose of Ben’s heroin in front of another addict (David Zaldivar) in exchange for information on Ben’s whereabouts, and also when she catches up to the elderly doctor who first got Ben hooked on painkillers and tells him quietly, “I hope you die a horrible death.” Later on, she manages a screaming meltdown in a police station without going over the top. Whatever its flaws as an addiction drama, Ben Is Back does remind us that this actress has some serious chops. It’s nice to have the reminder.
Ben Is Back
Starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. Written and directed by Peter Hedges. Rated R.