Film Review: Ben is Back (15), 7/10
The return of a recovering drug addict to the fold throws festive preparations into disarray in Academy Award-nominated writer-director Peter Hedges' sensitively observed drama.
Anchored by powerhouse performances from Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, Ben Is Back explores the devastation wrought by addiction on various members of a fractured New York family, who are divided about whether to support a wayward teenager after a litany of painful relapses and mistakes.
The film's emotional heartbeat is the seemingly unbreakable bond between a fiercely protective mother and her 19-year-old son, who repeatedly pushes away his biggest supporter for fear of letting her down. Again.
'If you really knew me, you'd be done with me,' Lucas Hedges' conflicted child tells Roberts' lioness during a night-time journey of self-discovery, which occasionally strains credibility as Peter Hedges' picture glides towards its tearful final reckoning.
A nicely calibrated script doesn't short-change the two leads including a stand-out sequence at an addiction support group meeting, where Ben publicly apologises for the pain he has inflicted on his loved ones while his mother sits silently behind him, tears welling in her eyes.
Ben Is Back traverses similar rocky territory to Beautiful Boy, albeit without graphic scenes of drug-taking.
Holly Burns-Beeby (Roberts) returns from Christmas shopping with her level-headed daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and six-year-old son Liam (Jakari Fraser) to find her oldest child Ben (Hedges) standing awkwardly in the driveway.
He has come home for Christmas, apparently with the blessing of his sponsor from the sober living house where he has been receiving treatment and support for addiction.
While Holly is delighted by the unexpected family reunion, Ivy fears Ben will fall from grace and she telephones her stepfather Neal (Courtney B Vance), who races home to remonstrate with his wife.
She agrees to personally take charge of her boy for Christmas.
'You do not leave my sight because, for the next 24 hours, you are mine,' Holly warns Ben.
Tensions inside the tinsel-laden Burns-Beeby home detonate when the family returns from Midnight Mass to find someone has broken into the house and taken the family's dog.
Neal lays the blame squarely on Ben's shoulders and the young man heads into the night flanked by Holly to make amends.
Ben Is Back is an actors' showcase and Roberts and Lucas Hedges excel in fraught exchanges.
The mystery of the dognapping provides a loose framework for writer-director Peter Hedges to explore dynamics between family members and test their resolve to breaking point.
He has a sharp ear for snappy dialogue and gives the impressive ensemble cast the time and space they need to convincingly plumb the depths of their characters' inner turmoil.