Julia Roberts & Lucas Hedges anchor drama in stirring family addiction tale
Ben is Back
Starring Julia Roberts & Lucas Hedges
Directed by Peter Hedges
In the opening scene, we see and hear a church choir singing “In the Bleak Midwinter,” rehearsing for an upcoming Christmas Eve performance.
The midwinter setting of this movie is pretty bleak, indeed, as a family wrestles with the addiction of their teenage son after he returns home unexpectedly from rehab for the Christmas holiday.
Mom Holly (Julia Roberts) is delighted to see Ben (Lucas Hedges). But wary younger sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton, who plays Claire Novak on The WB’s Supernatural and Abigail Carlson on HBO’s Big Little Lies) isn’t so sure. And stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) is downright uptight.
Ben is, after all, still an addict—and it turns out he’s done some pretty dreadful things. Some of those things have followed him home.
“If he were black,” Neal tells Holly, “he’d be in jail right now.”
In the bleak midwinter, indeed.
As tensions mount, a Christmas Eve break-in kicks things into gear for the film’s second half. Ben sets out into the night to hopefully make things right, and his mother follows on a desperate pursuit as he descends into a dark, dismal den of drug dealers, users and other rough reminders of his dangerous past.
At 21, Hedges has already made a career of playing troubled, conflicted teens, beginning with his Oscar-nominated role in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and continuing through terrific performances in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), Lady Bird (2017) and this year’s Boy Erased and Mid90s.
He’s the best thing about Ben is Back—believable, raw and real.
Roberts, of course, is Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman and the Runaway Bride—a whole spectrum of high-wattage comedy-drama movie memories wrapped up in one actress. She’s intense as Ben’s fiercely loving, hyper-protective mother, and grounds her performance in the way an agonized parent might authentically behave when in fear of losing her child.
“I was friends with your mother!” Holly unloads on one wasted addict, recognizing him as a childhood friend of Ben’s. “I used to change your diapers!”
Julia doesn’t go all Halle Berry in Kidnap or Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween—two other 2018 movie moms who lashed out with vengeance and violence when their kids were in trouble. That’s what Hollywood typically does (and mainstream audiences want to see) when movies “swing into action”—slam, bam, bang, bang. But Ben is Back raises the dramatic stakes without so much as ever showing a gun, knife, crossbow, ninja star or any sort of weapon, which is somewhat of a miracle for a contemporary R-rated flick.
The writer-director, Peter Hedges, is actually Lucas’ father, which gives everything a much more personal edge—one that cuts deeper when Holly goes on a mini-tirade against pharma, government services and insurance, or berates a family physician for over-prescribing prescription painkillers that she feels started Ben down his road to addiction.
The movie’s not perfect, and sometimes feels like a timely, B-minus family drama with an A-plus cast. Especially in the home stretch, things get a little loose and sloppy—like when a crucial, life-or-death cross-town delivery, incomprehensibly, turns out to be both from and to the same character.
Drugs are a serious problem, and the movie drives that point home again and again. Tony Award-winning stage actress Rachel Bay Jones makes a poignant appearance as a morose mother whose daughter was lost to an overdose, and Australian actress Alexandra Park (Princess Eleanor on the E! series The Royals) has a pivotal scene as a recovering addict.
But Ben is Back is the Lucas and Julia show all the way. Ben may be back, but Roberts never left, and Hedges wraps up a tremendous year with another powerful, gut-punch of a performance.
The midwinter may be bleak, but his future is looking brighter than ever.
In theaters Dec. 7, 2018