Review: 'Ben Is Back' a powerful, but flawed showcase for Roberts, Hedges
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"Ben Is Back" trailer
By Chip Chandler — Producer
Julia Roberts is the mama bear you want watching after you.
In the immensely sad addiction drama Ben Is Back, Roberts' Holly is mother to 19-year-old oxy addict Ben (Lucas Hedges), who shows up unexpectedly on the doorstep of the family home on Christmas Eve.
It's not a joyous reunion, though Holly forces out that beaming Roberts smile. Her frightened eyes betray her, and we know that as much as she loves her son, something's wrong here.
We quickly learn — as Holly bolts inside to hide medications and jewelry — that Ben is on leave from his rehab center, and his recovery is in a fragile place. For the next 24 hours, Ben, Holly and the rest of the family are tested yet again.
Writer/director Peter Hedges (Lucas' father) keeps the focus tight on Ben and Holly and their fractured, yet loving relationship. Holly wants to believe that Ben's on the road to recovery, that all the red flags that even he sees will be easily surmounted. Ben clearly sees home and his mother as his anchors, though everything else in his life is threatening to sink him — and those lifelines, too, may weigh him down.
As the movie unfolds, we see how fragile Ben's sobriety is and how much damage he has done to himself and his family. The tighter focus plays better than 2018's other addiction drama, Beautiful Boy, which did show the struggles of (in that case) a father and addicted son (Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet) but never felt scary enough.
We get more of a visceral sense of Ben's rock bottom here. Holly is determined that if she watches Ben closely enough this time, he won't relapse yet again. And so she is by his side virtually nonstop over the course of this day, learning some harsh truths about what his addiction made him do.
Where the film slips somewhat is in its pivot, toward the end, into thriller territory. Though the second half of the film gets less believable as it goes along, we never doubt the actors, including Kathryn Newton as Ben's sister Ivy and Courtney B. Vance as his stepfather, Neal.
But at the center, always, are Holly and Ben — and Roberts and Lucas Hedges. The younger Hedges is one of the most talented actors of his generation (Oscar nominated for Manchester by the Sea and so good in the flawed Boy Erased), and he does a quietly sensational job here. Roberts, beneath her maternal warmth, is desperately scared and mournful in a masterful performance.
And through it all, this desperate, appropriate sadness. We don't know if Ben's recovery will hold, and as much as Holly wants to believe, she doesn't know either. She just knows that she loves him and prays that's some sort of help.