Is there a more consistently watchable actor than Julia Roberts? In good films or bad, Roberts is always a highlight — warm, empathetic, engaging. And so she is in Ben Is Back — a tentative new member of the Good Film camp. She plays Holly, mother of four, including 19-year-old Ben (Lucas Hedges), her oldest child and a recovering drug addict. Ben is a mere 77 days sober when he makes an unplanned and far from universally welcome return to the family home on Christmas Eve. His kid half-siblings are falling over themselves with excitement, his stepfather Neal (Vance) and teenage sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) far more suspicious. Mom, meanwhile, is a painful mix of delight and visceral anxiety.
Whereas the recent Beautiful Boy is a father/son drug story, Ben Is Back is very much about a mother and son in a similar crisis. In the film’s early stages director Peter Hedges (screenwriting too) does a lovely job of depicting this ‘perfect’ family, on the surface at least — beautiful home, rambunctious kids, money in the bank — caught in the riptide of addiction. There’s an easy rapport in the family that feels natural and authentic, and stepfather Neal’s reserved concerns when Ben makes his bombshell return again feel entirely credible — while tantalizingly hinting at a bigger, as yet unseen picture.
The film's more conventional third act falters.
And a bigger picture there is. Hedges mixes handheld (juddering images depicting Ben’s shock return) and fixed camera (the stability of an NA meeting) to imply different subtexts, neatly shifting the mood. This works very well as the extent of Ben’s problem — and Holly’s corresponding worry — becomes gradually more clear. As is the case with any parent of an addict, can she trust that his intentions are sincere, that he’s going to be able to stay clean — not least as she has her youngest kids to consider? Conversely, can she really send him away from the family and back to the clinic on such a highly charged holiday? Hedges presents with wry humour and brutal honesty the off-kilter and complex, shifting realities of an ‘everyday’ family caught up in such a situation. Like his family, we don’t know if Ben’s lying about being sober — and this lends the drama the pleasing edge of a thriller.
It’s ironic, then, that when the film’s third act moves into more conventional thriller territory, it falters. Clichés so far avoided now abound — tattooed dealers, and wan-faced, skinny teens huddled round oil drums in the bad part of town. While the attention is still held, this section seems to be from a different, clunkier film. Supporting characters here feel one-dimensional, and the film suffers from the near disappearance of the family we got to know at the story’s start. Yet, with strong performances all round — particularly Roberts and Lucas Hedges — Peter Hedges’ attempt to offer an alternative view of addiction still has much to offer, and to ponder.