Drug addiction has been done in films so often it’s difficult to find a fresh approach, but Peter Hedges’ “Ben Is Back” does it by focusing not on the addict but his mother — and giving Julia Roberts a meaty, meaningful role.
Ben Burns — played by the director’s son, the suddenly ubiquitous Lucas Hedges (“Boy Erased”) — shows up on Christmas Eve at his family home in upstate New York. He’s there just as his mom, Holly (played by Roberts), is driving home from choir practice with teen daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and younger half-siblings Lacey (Mia Fowler) and Liam (Jakari Fraser). Holly welcomes Ben back with a hug in the driveway, while Ivy is more wary, staying in the car to text her stepdad, Neal (Courtney B. Vance).
Hedges, who wrote the screenplay, drops tiny hints about why Ben was gone, and why his sister isn’t too keen about seeing Mom being so accepting of his return. Holly isn’t entirely naive, hiding the prescription bottles before Ben’s in the house more than a minute. But Holly wants to believe Ben when he says the rehab facility let him come home for the holidays.
Most of the movie centers on Ben and Holly on Christmas Eve. Holly accompanies Ben to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, where the talk gets pretty raw. They run into Beth (Rachel Bay Jones), a neighbor whose presence makes Ben uneasy, for reasons discovered later. They go to the mall, where Ben is spotted by Spider (David Zaldivar), a former junkie acquaintance who’s connected to a drug lord to whom Ben owes a lot of money.
Hedges’ script dives into the seedier side of suburbia, as Ben’s return brings out all kinds of score-settling. But the prime focus is on Holly, and the measures she will take to protect Ben from external harm while also staying tough on him to stay clean and contemplate the people he’s hurt.
Roberts is terrific, toggling from fiercely protective to angrily scolding and finding the level of pain and anguish in both roles. The scene where Holly drives Ben out to the cemetery, and tells him to pick the spot where she’ll bury him, is moving because Roberts puts so much conviction into it — a conviction that makes “Ben Is Back” a step above the average addiction story.
‘Ben Is Back’
Opened December 7 in select cities; opens Friday, December 21, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated R for language throughout and some drug use. Running time: 103 minutes.