Ben is Back review: 'Adopts a commendably gritty, unsentimental approach to addiction, and Julia Roberts is at her best'
Where do you stand on Julia Roberts? While not the worst actress ever to have won an Oscar, she’s hardly Meryl Streep. She has a narrow range, and tends to overact furiously when out of her depth: witness her scenery-chewing in August: Osage County opposite the same Ms. Streep. For Julia to be effective, the role has to be exactly right, something with lots of grit and emotion but not too much funny stuff: comedy is not her strong suit.
Over the years those perfect roles have been few, but this might just be one of them. In Peter Hedges’ moving drama, she plays Holly Burns, a busy housewife who’s driving her children home on Christmas Eve when she sees a figure standing in the driveway.
It’s her 20-year-old son, Ben (Lucas Hedges, the director’s son), and instantly everyone’s on edge.
Ben has been struggling with drug addiction, and as the drama unfolds we’re given episodic insights into the damage his habit has wrought. He’s been on an extended stay at a rehab centre, but assures his mother he was given permission to come home for Christmas by his sponsor. While Holly’s delighted, not everyone else is: his teenage sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) seems to have lost all trust in him, and Holly’s husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) is even less impressed.
Neal is Ivy and Ben’s stepfather, and Holly also has two young children with him, but his relationship with Ben is clearly strained. Money has gone missing, overdoses have been attempted, and every lowlife in town has been dragged through their lives. While Holly wants to believe that Ben has changed, she hides all the jewellery and money as a matter of course, and Neal is not keen on the idea of a volatile recovering addict being around his kids.
Ben does seem to be doing better, but as he attempts to help with the family’s Christmas preparations, his past is about to catch up with him. When they go to church, curious looks suggests the wider community is well aware of Ben’s struggles, and Holly comforts a woman who breaks into tears at the sight of him. When they return home, they find that the house has been burgled and the family dog is missing: all suspicions point to Ben, and the pond scum he may owe money to.
Neal wants him gone, but Ben is determined to find the dog and make things right, and takes off into the night. But he’s clearly in danger, and Holly decides to follow him.
Lucas Hedges is a fine young actor, and seems to specialise in playing people on the edge. He broke through playing an unhappy and recently orphaned teenager in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, and last time we met him was undergoing the horrors of ‘gay conversion therapy’ in Boy Erased.
His character here is equally desperate, an intelligent and kind young man who can’t seem to move beyond the ugly path his addiction led him down.
He has the heartbreakingly brittle bonhomie of the addict, who’s desperately trying to prove to everyone that things are ok but can’t quite convince himself. He’s doing his best you feel, but coming home was clearly a mistake, as he’s not psychologically ready for the ghosts that there confront him. He goes to an AA meeting accompanied by his redoubtable mother, and makes a declaration so honest and almost childlike it would move a stone. But like all addicts, Ben is tricksy, and just when Holly thinks she’s gotten to the bottom of his problems, more emerge.
Lucas Hedges is excellent in a role that demands much of him, and Courtney B. Vance is also good in a quiet supporting role. Ben’s problems are bound to drive a wedge between his protective mother and a partner who is not his biological father, and Holly resents Neal’s tough love approach. Sensing this, Ben tells her “he hates me” but Holly’s having none of it: Neal, we discover, is the one who paid for Ben’s rehabilitation.
For almost its entire length, Ben is Back adopts a commendably gritty, unsentimental approach to a problem that afflicts rich and poor alike, and shows us the toxic side effects of addiction on the wider family. But right at the end, Peter Hedges’ film can’t resist the old Hollywood urge to reach for a neat solution to a dilemma that requires love and hard work, not magic.
And what of Julia? She’s at her very best here, playing a fierce and desperate mother determined to stick by her first-born whatever the cost.
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