Ben is Back is a family drama, but more than that, it’s the scarcely seen mother-son relationship movie. Ben (Lucas Hedges) is a drug addict. His mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), loves him unconditionally and will do everything in her power to end Ben’s addiction to the substances that drive the two apart.
On Christmas Eve, Holly arrives home to see Ben—who should be at rehab—standing in her driveway. Holly is delighted, if not a little surprised, to see Ben home. Ben’s relationship with the rest of the family is quickly revealed as he steps inside. Although Ben is 77 days sober, his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) are wary of his ability to stay away from drugs in his limited time home and suggest he return to rehab immediately. Ben’s stepsiblings Lacy and Liam (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser) adore their brother and hope he will stay for Christmas. Holly, serving as mediator between the parties, decides that he can stay for 24 hours so long as he never leaves her sight.
Eventful Christmas Eve errands lead Holly and Ben to the shopping mall (almost like it’s 1996—can you even imagine?) and an AA meeting. Later, the family prepares for church where Ben’s siblings perform in the Christmas play. After the play, the family arrives home to discover that the house has been ransacked. Only the family dog, Ponce, was taken. Ben’s enemies, aware of his reemergence in town, have kidnapped Ponce in hopes of drawing Ben out to repay his debts. Holly and Ben set out to find the dog on a tour of Ben’s old haunts as an addict.
Vance and Newton (Fowler and Fraser, too) shine in complementary roles, but the movie belongs to Hedges and Roberts. Hedges’s performance is uneven, though generally very good. Roberts, well, can I say that 2018 was a tremendous year for Julia Roberts? Because 2018 was a tremendous year for Julia Roberts. The Pretty Woman star turned in her best working year in more than a decade with Homecoming, Amazon’s 10-episode psychological thriller calling back to the days of paranoia cinema, and Ben is Back. Movie stars don’t often step out of their comfort zone, but it tends to pay off when they do. Roberts was no exception.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges (the father of star Lucas), Ben is Back is devastating. It’s nerve-wracking. Movies featuring drug addiction can fall prey to emotional manipulation (Forrest Gump) or glazing over the realities of addiction (Forrest Gump). Like Trainspotting, Ben is Back is more than that. Ben and Ivy’s fractured relationship reveals the wake that addiction can leave behind. With that in mind, Ben is Back is far from perfect. It’s ending is too safe and predictable, and a scene where Holly publicly accosts the doctor who first prescribed Ben painkillers is unearned catharsis. The public denigration doesn’t fit with the rest of the film, even if it draws a throughline between prescription painkillers and Ben’s current affliction.
In the midst of an opioid crisis, it is likely that we all have someone in our lives—whether we know it or not—who is struggling with addiction. Ben is Back is a harrowing reminder that it is up to us to lend the support they need.