Synopsis: A drug addicted teenage boy shows up unexpectedly at his family’s home on Christmas Eve.
Stars: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton
Director: Peter Hedges
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Well, we’ve all (hopefully) survived another Christmas and many of us will have spent Christmas Eve with our families. While you may have weathered your fair share of withering relatives, bad fruit cake, and are coming home with yet another taupe turtleneck from Aunt Marge, you’ll likely not have had quite as eventful a day as the family featured at the center of Ben is Back. Taking place over one 24-hour period in the lives of a family that’s all in a recovery of one form or another, this is the kind of harrowing familial drama that makes you glad you’re just dealing with an uncle with opposing political views.
It’s Christmas Eve in a small town in upstate New York. On the way back from a church program rehearsal with her three children, Holly (Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias) is shocked but overjoyed to see her first-born son Ben (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom) standing in the driveway waiting for them. For Holly and her two youngest children, Ben’s arrival is met with joy but for her daughter (Kathryn Newton, Lady Bird) and husband (Courtney B. Vance, Office Christmas Party) the return is anything but a Christmas miracle. Burned in the past by Ben’s addiction to drugs and the horrific behavior that it brought out, both are leery that he’s changed enough to be trusted. Holly chooses to believe her son has finally turned his life around and that his 77 days sober is enough proof for her family to see that he’s on a new path.
With her eye on her son (and her medications and valuables safely locked away), Holly spends the next day trying to focus on the holiday at hand while nervously watching for signs that he’ll disappoint her. He’s manipulated her in the past and she’s ready to call him on any indication that he’s not being fully straight with her. They go Christmas shopping, they attend an AA meeting where Holly gets a first-hand account of what recovery looks like not only for her son but for the men and women continuing to struggle with addiction in their later years. Later, they’ll go on another more complex journey both physical and emotional that takes them through painful memories.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges (The Odd Life of Timothy Green), Ben is Back has a fairly solid and tension filled first half that eventually gives way to a second act I didn’t enjoy quite as much. It’s at that midpoint the movie switches things up from a stress-inducing drama focused on the devastating effects addiction has on families to a more traditional storytelling arc that feels like something we’ve all seen before. It’s as if the scripts for two separate and half-finished movies dealing with the same subject were cobbled together. That being said, I wasn’t ever sure how things would turn out for Holly and Ben and for that I was grateful.
What makes the movie so very watchable are the two lead performances, namely Roberts in one of the best roles of her career. A true Hollywood A-List star, Roberts has coasted a bit in the years following her Oscar win for Erin Brockovich, taking on projects for fun (Mirror Mirror), in support of prestige leads (August: Osage County), or what had to have been as a favor (Mother’s Day). She’s back in full force in Ben is Back, going total mama bear as she fights to protect her son from himself and fend off all others that may stand in her way. Through it all, Roberts layers her character with idiosyncrasies and flaws that show she’s not perfect either but reinforce she’s human like the rest of us. For someone so recognizable with that mega-watt smile, she’s remarkably adept at blending in with ordinary folk.
She’s matched well by Lucas Hedges (yep, the son of the director) as a man reckoning with his past misdeeds over an already stressful holiday. Back in the town filled with memories that might derail his progress, the real reason he’s back isn’t revealed until late in the movie and makes what has transpired that much more heartbreaking. Lucas does right by Ben and the audience in never letting us in on how much he’s telling us is true and how much is a put-on façade for the benefit of others. While Lucas has less meat on the bone to chew on in the second half, he proves to be a good scene partner for Roberts and brings out colors in her that have long been dormant.
Acting as another somber reminder on the struggle with drug addiction in America (though not a preachy PSA), Ben is Back is most notable for the performances of Roberts and Hedges but also has a nice way of creating an atmosphere of tension that keeps you on edge for most of its 103 minutes. You never quite know which way the movie is going to veer and even though the latter half of the film isn’t a strong as the first it eventually finds its way back to the heart of the family with a whopper of an ending. Though it might be as manipulative as our titular character, the final shot of the movie really hit me hard.