Film Review: Ben is Back

This wow of a holiday film plays heavily on one of the most agonizing family and/or social problems in America today.
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The opening scenes are ominous. It’s winter in a small town somewhere in the Northeast. Snow blankets the ground, and all is quiet—except for the Christmas music coming from a local church. Suddenly we’re inside the church, moving in for a close-up on the face of a woman sitting in the pews—a beaming, glowing face, for this is the face of Julia Roberts as we’ve come to know her.  

But the Julia Roberts we think we know is not the one we get in Ben Is Back. Au contraire, in this film Ms. Roberts does not so much glow as grow, stretching herself and her talents to new dramatic heights as Holly, a suburban wife and mother of four—two from each of her marriages. It is her oldest son, Ben, beautifully played by the charismatic Lucas Hedges, who captured Holly’s heart the moment he was born and now threatens to permanently break it.

Like a shocking number of real-life young people in the U.S., Ben is an opioid addict. It doesn’t matter how he got hooked, or why, but what does matter to Holly is that he gets clean and stays clean—and that he stays alive. She and her second husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), believe they’ve done the right thing by Ben by putting him in a sober-living facility where he is expected to stay, even through Christmas. But when Holly and her brood—teenage Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and grade-schoolers Lacy and Liam (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser)—return home from church on that Christmas Eve, they find Ben waiting to be let into their house.

Holly is overjoyed but wary about seeing him, but his sister Ivy is downright hostile, for she remembers how Ben totally destroyed the family’s previous Christmases, and she’s adamant he cannot be allowed to do the same this year. Her stepfather agrees that Ben should return to rehab immediately, but Holly convinces him to let Ben have at least 24 hours with his family. She warns her son, however, that she’ll be “laying down the law” by monitoring his every move—and she means it. The first thing Ben must do, for instance, is pass a urine test, and Holly stands in the door to make sure there’s no cheating. And later, to help him avoid temptation, she hides the contents of her medicine cabinet and jewelry drawer. It’s not that she’s lost faith in her son. She simply knows through experience that any trigger—anything at all—can mean life or death for Ben.

And the triggers are everywhere—especially in the hometown where Ben is not only known for using drugs, but also for selling them—with disastrous results in one case. A simple shopping trip to the mall with his mom becomes almost too much for Ben to bear, and he suddenly needs to find “a meeting,” one of the Narcotics Anonymous gatherings that so many addicts depend upon to see them through a single day. Sticking to her vow, Holly tags along with Ben to the meeting, and she hears him say he’s been clean “for seventy-seven days” and counting. In addition to her own fears and guilt, she intuitively feels Ben’s, too—and we viewers do as well. Also, we must force ourselves to remember, as Holly does, that by his own admission Ben is—like, truth be told, all addicts—a liar.

Still, Ben’s holiday furlough seems manageable enough until the aftermath of another church service, when the family returns home to find their house broken into and the family dog stolen. At this point, Ben Is Back becomes an authentic thriller. Ben insists he and Holly go in search of the dog. Ben knows just where to look, of course, and as their strange overnight odyssey introduces Holly to the depths of her son’s drug-induced degradation, Roberts makes us feel the agony of her helplessness every step of the way. And, like any true thriller, at times the eventual fate of either or both of the protagonists seems very much in doubt.

So, no, Ben Is Back is not your feel-good Christmas movie—but it is a timely and ultimately powerful movie that takes a serious look at one of the nation’s most disastrous social problems. However, as this film shows, opioid addiction is much more than that: It’s a monster whose sticky appendages take hold of its victims and never, ever let go. Drug addiction destroys lives and tears apart families, and it takes a daring filmmaker like Peter Hedges to make it the chief subject of a movie timed to the supposedly cheerful holiday season. Lucky for him, he acquired the always-empathetic Julia Roberts to play this fiercely protective mom, and he cast his own son—his very busy son—as her almost-as-empathetic young offspring.

One more thing: Although Hedges’ script is a bit too on-the-nose a few times, admirably it never sets out to Make a Statement or declare itself an Important Film. The focus here is narrow, the scale very human—and the emotions true. All in all, it’s one helluva memorable Christmas movie.