Addiction recovery is a difficult topic to address honestly onscreen. This past October’s Beautiful Boy showed a father’s journey to help his teenage son through his meth addiction. That dealt with the challenges while largely neglecting the personal issues at stake. It was a case study, not a fleshed out drama. Ben is Back, about a young man leaving rehab to be with his family on Christmas, focuses more on the personal. That makes it easier to relate to the suffering caused by the addiction. It treats the characters as people instead of as symbols. There is a little too much melodrama that occasionally distracts from the real story (especially in the last act). Though, for the most part, this is a well-written, well-acted and moving production.
At the beginning of the movie, Holly returns home from church with her three other children to find her son Ben waiting on their driveway. He has been in rehab and his appearance is unexpected. Holly is outwardly very excited to see him. Inwardly, she is concerned, both for Ben and his effect on the family. The rest of the story follows Holly as she learns who Ben really is. There is a subplot in the second half that is not as successful, but the relationship between Ben and Holly is nicely drawn and affecting.
The strength is in the writing in addition to the performances. Writer/director/producer Peter Hedges is careful not to sensationalize this material. Recovery is hard enough without throwing contrived obstacles in there. He does overcomplicate things by forcing Ben to confront his past, but he never fully takes the emphasis off of the central relationship. Ben has turned away everyone due to his behavior, even himself. That is, except for Holly. She refuses to give up on her son, regardless of what he has done. Peter Hedges allows this information to come out naturally in conversation. The way the two of them feel about each other is conveyed even better by the actors.
Julia Roberts has been fairly quiet on the big screen in recent years, however I would not be surprised if she gets her fifth Oscar nomination for playing Holly. She is someone who may let love cloud her judgment at times, but she makes it very clear she knows exactly what she is doing. Roberts displays her concern in small touches, like laughing a little too loudly or letting a smile fade a little too quickly. Her enthusiasm toward Ben shows a need to convince him, as well as herself, that he is going to be okay. Her love and fear is the center of the story. Roberts makes her arc relatable and heartbreaking.
As Ben, Lucas Hedges (son of Peter Hedges) gives another in a series of impressive performances. Though he is trying to get better, being home reminds him of all the bad things he did to the people he cares about. Lucas Hedges plays him like a nice kid who has decided the mistakes he has made as an addict define who he is as a person. It is sad, but effective in the way it demonstrates the destructiveness of the disease. Lucas Hedges is good at smiling through pain and he gets a great showcase for that here.
Ben is Back (96 minutes without the end credits) is a great family drama that branches out slightly more than it can handle. It is still quite good, with a couple of really powerful moments (one at an NA meeting, one at a mall). It features two outstanding, emotional performances and deals with heavy subject matter in a sensitive way. Beautiful Boy was more direct in discussing addiction, but Ben is Back, by focusing on the people, has a much stronger impact.
4 out of 5
Julia Roberts as Holly Burns
Lucas Hedges as Ben Burns
Kathryn Newton as Ivy Burns
Courtney B. Vance as Neal Beeby
Mia Fowler as Lacey Burns-Beeby
Jakari Fraser as Liam Burns-Beeby
Written and Directed by Peter Hedges