Ben is Back
Julia Roberts plays the mother of a drug-addict son who must do everything to keep him clean, causing her family to fall into turmoil.
Ben is Back is a film that shows the true triumph and spirit of a family bond, both in front of and behind the camera.
Not only does the film centre around the strength of a mother’s love, but it brings writer-director Peter Hedges and his actor son Lucas Hedges together in their first creative endeavour.
After a stint in a sober living facility for his drug addiction, Ben Burns (Hedges) returns to his family home on Christmas Eve.
His mother Holly (Roberts) is delighted to have him home but Ben’s sister and step-dad are reluctant to embrace him so quickly.
Over a 24-hour period, Holly must do everything in her power to keep Ben clean as demons from his past threaten to disrupt the family and draw Ben back into the throes of addiction.
A seemingly downbeat synopsis is elevated by Oscar-winner and American treasure Julia Roberts who brings a warmth and intensity to the character that is perfectly balanced in every scene.
Holly is a dedicated and resilient mother who will protect her children at any cost - but that love manifests into overbearing frustration and a palpable fear for her son’s safety and sobriety, demanding that Ben adhere to a strict set of rules if he wishes to stay.
She wishes death upon the ageing doctor who prescribed him addictive painkillers and bribes a young addict with drugs to get him to disclose vital information that could lead to Ben’s discovery after he goes missing.
Holly’s methods may be severe and morally questionable, but we wholly empathise with her motivations as a concerned, desperate parent.
Despite his fraught past and the traumatic consequences of his actions, Holly is willing to forgive and, by large, forget and focus on his ongoing recovery.
However, Ben’s teenage sister Ivy (a sympathetic Newton) is less capable of accepting Ben’s arrival.
She, along with Courtney B. Vance’s Neal (Holly’s second husband), are cautious of Ben’s redemptive attitude and the film alludes to his previous misdemeanours. Although nothing is ever explicitly stated, we gather together the pieces to form a portrait of a family in turmoil.
The ramifications of Ben’s addiction continue to have consequences for the whole family as they return from carol service to find their home broken into and their family dog kidnapped by drug-dealer Clayton whom Ben used to work for.
Once Holly and Ben set off on their dangerous journey to find Ponce, it’s Ben who starts to call the shots and stipulate the rules as Holly finds herself out of her domesticated depth.
Ben navigates them to different locations in their search for their beloved pet on a very bleak tour of the places that hold connections to Ben’s sordid past.
The supporting cast is strong, but Ben is Back mostly plays as a two-hander between Roberts and Hedges and the pair give fully committed performances and craft nuanced characters.
Lucas Hedges continues to add to his limited but admirable filmography and myriad of strong performances for an actor so early on in their career.
Ben is a loving big brother and dutiful son upon first impression, but we gradually begin to understand the darkness and struggle that resides in him thanks to a confluence of the film’s solid script and Hedges’ affecting