It’s the day before Christmas and Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) gets the most unexpected surprise. She returns home with her three children to find her 19-year-old son waiting on the doorstep.
Ben (Lucas Hedges) says his sponsor has granted him leave to spend the holidays with the family. But Holly’s husband Neal (Courtney B Vance) and daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) are sceptical about Ben’s release from the rehab centre. For all her joy, Holly is too. She quickly gathers up all the medicines in the cabinets and, along with other valuables, hides them deep in her cupboard.
With his sunken eyes laced by dark circles, a pale complexion and anxious body language, Ben appears to be frighteningly unpredictable.
For his family, it all boils down to a fear of experiencing something traumatic when an addict succumbs to the many triggers dotted around home turf. It’s a self-destructive path that mows down anyone who stands in the way.
Holly convinces her husband that Ben should stay for 24 hours provided he passes a drug test. She insists that she will be keeping an eye on him throughput, but seems to forget that very condition rather swiftly. Which means Ben is able to wander around the house unsupervised, and even left alone in a convenience store at a time when it is clearly not a good idea to do so.
One day is all it takes a 19 year old hurtling down a dark path into the lair of predators, drug dealers, addicts and victims. Ben takes his insistent mother along even as she is desperately trying to anchor her son and support him, sometimes in twisted ways.
Over time, Holly’s behaviour and decisions become more and more questionable – from a naïve faith in her son to agreeing to go along with him on an undefined journey, to leaving him alone at time when it’s painfully apparent that he is not to be trusted. This is what Ben believes too. He’s lost hope in his own future and is resigned to his weakness and dependence. 77 days sober means little when each day is a battle. But if Holly has any to do with it, Ben will make it to day 78.
The tragic consequences of substance addiction are writ large over small-town America, as depicted by writer-director Peter Hedges.
The evidence lies in the number of youngsters who battle with or succumb to addiction and the double standards of availability of over-the-counter products at drug stores.
Hedges sets up the film with a strong emotional core but the recurrently clunky screenplay suddenly turns bizarre, moving into the thriller-like genre. The climax forsakes logic for the sake of heightened drama.
The moments between Roberts and Lucas Hedges are the most poignant. After delivering a moving performance in this year’s Boy Erased, he pitches in with another character study of a troubled teenager staring into a hopeless future. (Lucas is also director Peter’s son.)
Roberts holds the show together, even when it begins to unravel in the last act. Balancing fear with compassion, she plays the woman who survived a bad first marriage and made pragmatic decisions about a second marriage.
She’s raising a family and running a home, but the absence of her son is a hole she has been unable to fill. In a startling scene she confronts the doctor who she blames for getting her son hooked to painkillers.
For all its good intentions, Ben Is Back is at most a satisfactory watch, but a remarkable showcase for both Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts.
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