A drug addicted teenage boy who is currently undergoing treatment in rehab shows up unexpectedly at his family's home on Christmas Eve. While mother Holly (Julia Roberts) is delighted that Ben (Lucas Hedges) is back, his stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) and sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) are sceptical about his return. Set over 24 hours, Ben’s past, as a dealer as well as an addict, quickly catches up to him.
Peter Hedges – who directed such films as ‘The Odd Life of Timothy Green’ and ‘Dan in Real Life’, and wrote screenplays for ‘About a Boy’ and ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ – turns his attention to family drama again, an arena he’s well-accustomed to by now. ‘Ben is Back’ is also a family affair from the perspective that Hedges directs his son, Lucas, in the movie, not that we’re complaining since Lucas Hedges is one of the most talented rising young actors in Hollywood right now.
Hedges and Julia Roberts’ performances are absolutely fundamental to making ‘Ben is Back’ work and both of them 100% deliver. Having starred in the riveting ‘Boy Erased’ earlier in the year, Hedges delivers another brilliant, emotional performance. Roberts continues to be the absolute pro we’ve always known her to be. The actors’ chemistry and mother-son dynamic is absolutely on point. The overriding theme in the movie of a mother’s unrelenting love versus the unrelenting nature of addiction is translated movingly and compellingly thanks to their A-Grade performances.
The Christianity metaphors of ‘Ben is Back’ can be a little on the nose. The ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ analogy is hardly a stretch given Ben appears before his family on their way home from mass. Moreover, one of the opening shots pans from a church window down to Julia Roberts’ angelic face while a choir sings in the background. More interesting is the fact that there is a distinct tonal shift in ‘Ben is Back’ as the first half fits into the aforementioned family drama genre while the second half enters more thriller-like territory. While this gives the film a more exciting feel than the similarly themed ‘Beautiful Boy’ from earlier this year, which also looks at a parent and their drug addict son, with Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet in the respective roles on that occasion, one also feels a bit put off by the ‘Hollywoodisation’ of the story. One wonders if in the hands of a different, more indie filmmaker, the story and subject matter might have been handled in a less conventional, more interesting and more incisive way.