Julia Roberts is back, reminding us what a fine actor she is, in 'Ben is Back', a deceptively understated film about addiction, written and directed by Peter Hedges – proof, if proof were needed, that she is wasted on romantic comedies. In what is her most hefty role and most moving performance in a decade, perhaps since 'Erin Brockovich' (2000), Roberts plays Holly Burns, mother of the Ben of the title, performed by 'Manchester by the Sea' discovery (and director's son) Lucas Hedges. Nineteen-year-old Ben has been in rehab for drug addiction for the past few months and has decided he is sufficiently recovered to return home for Christmas, just for a day.
'Ben is Back' takes place in snow-clad, frigid, small town New York. As the film begins, Holly and her family: Ivy (Kathryn Newton), her teenage daughter from her first marriage, and her two young children with her second husband Neal (Courtney B Vance) are setting off for their church's Christmas Eve show. They return home to find Ben in their driveway. He explains that he is back for Christmas, with his sponsor's permission, and will return to rehab the next day. The look on Roberts' face – a mixture of delight and dread – foreshadows things to come. She will go to extreme lengths to protect her son and to hold onto the belief that as the capable mom always in control, everything will turn out okay.
Holly decides Ben can stay one day if he doesn't leave her side for a moment. It is just as well that Roberts and Hedges are so compelling together as they share most screen time and their relationship is the heart of the story. Ben's stepfather, who is paying for Ben's expensive rehab treatment, thinks it is far too risky to skip a day of rehab. 'If he were black,' (as he himself is) 'he'd be in jail by now', he snaps. White, middle-class addicts with wealthy parents get second chances. Kathryn Newton who worked with Lucas on 'Lady Bird' (2017) and last year's 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri', is also hostile to the idea, as Ben's sister, and hurt by her mother's seemingly blind faith in her eldest child.
Nevertheless, the first thing Holly does is rush upstairs to empty the medicine cupboard, and just as the storytelling could tip into sentimentality it turns dark. At one point, faced with Holly's infuriatingly upbeat belief in how well he is doing, Ben rages at his mother for believing anything he says because 'addicts are all liars'. He even hints that she has been willfully oblivious to the damage he has caused people. 'You're trying too hard,' someone else tells her. 'That's what I do,' she replies. In one powerful scene in the shopping mall she confronts a bewildered elderly doctor, now senile, for prescribing Ben the painkillers he claimed were harmless, but which, she is convinced, led to her son's addiction.
Peter Hedges cleverly structures the film to keep the audience constantly on edge and second-guessing Ben's motives, so that if he is off-screen for a brief moment we suspect that next time we see him he'll be main-lining or otherwise betraying his mother's trust. Hedges' script is equally wily. At one level the film is 'one day in the life of the Burns family' but it is much more. Rather like 'Manchester by the Sea' (2017), reviewed on these pages last year, the way its story unfolds creates a sense that each of its characters, however minor, has a life beyond the screen.
'Ben is Back' constantly points to the complicated history Ben left behind him when he left town, a past that keeps emerging into the present, and about which his mother really does not want to know. For example, at the Christmas Mass, Ben sees the mother of an old girlfriend who died of an overdose. Ben was her dealer and initiated her into her habit. Returning home, they find the house broken into and the family dog, Ponce, missing, taken presumably by someone seeking revenge for some past wrong. This sets in motion a quest for the missing pet, which turns into a journey into Ben's past with Holly along for the (car) ride.
Peter Hedges wisely leaves much for the audience to fill in for themselves, relying on the actors' capacity to deliver the film's message about addiction through gesture and expression rather than words. There is nothing at all preachy about it, and what the characters don't say to one another is as important as what they do say. Ben scares everyone, and the anxious feeling generated right from the start never abates. It is fuelled by the simple question: Will Ben start using again? Can those who love him trust him? Should they?
In the second half of the film, Ben's past eventually catches up with him, and various shady people come out of the woodwork, including a particularly sleazy schoolteacher with whom he had an 'arrangement' that helped finance his drugs. The gearshift to crime thriller genre is less convincing than the character-driven first half of the film where no one shouts and Hedges simply gives his actors space to act. Roberts can convey legions in a meaningful look, while Lucas Hedges' astonishing talent is made the most of in a part that requires him to convey what it is like to be a person at war with himself. That Ben is engaging and funny much of the time suggests that addiction can gain control of anyone's life.
'Ben is Back' is Holly's story as much as it is Ben's, and it is very much Julia Roberts' film, as she subtly subverts the Julia Roberts 'brand', playing a woman with an unwavering belief in her own maternal power: if anyone can turn her son back into the sweet boy he once was, surely she can. But as she follows Ben into the underworld of opioid addiction she discovers that she is utterly powerless. Lucas Hedges' intelligent performance and his father's nuanced script take us places that few movies do, dealing with an issue that has devastating consequences for millions, not only on the margins of society but right at the heart of middle-class suburban America.