Ben is Back

(2018) ** 1/2 R
103 min. Roadside Attractions. Director: Peter Hedges. Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance.

/content/films/5140/1.jpegThe twilight zone of living with a family member in the grip of addiction serves as the existential setting of Ben is Back. Sure, the literal setting is a rather quaint suburban New York town, made deceptively more charming by its wintry, moonlit glow, choir-graced church, and Christmas-goosed families. But the film’s titular return, of a teenager to his blended family on Christmas Eve, spells 24 hours of secrets and lies.

Written and directed by Peter Hedges (Dan in Real Life, Pieces of April), Ben is Back simultaneously introduces us to Holly Burns (Oscar-winner Julia Roberts) and her prodigal son Ben Burns (Peter’s Oscar-nominated son Lucas Hedges). Hedges immediately establishes Holly’s power-mom mode—taking as much control of every situation as she can, but always with a high-wattage Julia Roberts smile—and Ben’s ruthlessness—as a teenager whose opioid addiction remains beyond his control. Ben’s sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) immediately goes on alert upon Ben’s return, and so does Holly, but for Mom, unconditional love and desperate hope cloud her judgement. “This time will be different,” she reassures Ivy and herself. “You’ll see. It will.”

Holly reveals herself to be a power mom who takes as much control as she can: was she always this person, or did Ben make her this way? In any case, her story is one of neurotic parenting pushed to the brink. Although Ben has taken unscheduled leave of his rehab program, the practiced manipulator has accurately predicted that his mother will not—cannot—turn him away on Christmas Eve. Ben’s stepdad glowers on the sidelines, hoping his voice of reason will be heard (“There’s too many triggers for you here,” he tells Ben). Ground rules are established and tested as Ben and Holly make a treacherous trip to the mall, and the family dutifully reports to church (where Ivy’s rendition of “O Holy Night” moves Ben to tears).

But all is not well on the family’s return home, and the crises that begin to pile up send Ben and Holly into the night, ostensibly on a shared mission, but still at odds. Contrivances pile up along with the crises, as the pair encounter characters requiring swift exposition and even swifter thematic point-scoring. One of these, the mother of a forever-lost opioid addict, tells Holly, “You can’t save them. But you’ll hate yourself if you don’t try.” That was more or less the message of Beautiful Boy earlier this season, and much as that film struggled to offer more insight than “Addiction is the worst,” Ben is Back feels thin, propped up by its performances and its late-breaking intrigues.

Still, the story never loses its rooting interests, and those performances are strong. Hedges adds to his body of work another effectively understated performance (he can be found across the multiplex, starring in Boy Erased), and Roberts’ role as an intense mama bear cleverly corrupts her famous smile to an “everything’s okay” mask. Ultimately, Ben is Back is about the lies addicts tell their loved ones, and those their loved ones tell themselves. Only by getting to the truth will a ribbon-thin path to redemption stretch into the far distance; that so few can walk it is the ongoing tragedy of post-opioid-crisis America. Once in the grip of addiction, families find there’s no guarantee that the truth will set them free.

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