“Ben Is Back” is a harrowing film about addiction and a mother’s love, an insightful if somewhat overwrought look into how the opiate crisis has invaded the white middle class and the struggles of one teenager and his mother to fight the deadly disease.
Julia Roberts loses any kind of movie star trappings and rarely flashes her legendary smile playing Holly Burns, the mother of 19-year-old Ben (Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea”), who unexpectedly returns home from rehab on Christmas Eve.
She’s thrilled to see him and welcomes him back. His sister Ivy (Kathyrn Newton), however, has the opposite reaction and, when he gets home from work, stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) orders Ben to go back to the rehab facility. But Neal relents, letting Ben stay for one day -- provided that he passes a drug test and Holly never lets him leave her sight.
What follows is 24 hours or so of an uneasy reunion, a church Christmas program and the return of Ben’s past, which sends him and Holly on a journey through the dark, dangerous alleys and storefronts haunted by addicts and dealers.
It is in there, in the film’s second act, that writer/director Peter Hedges, Lucas’ father, overcooks things a bit.
It’s hard to believe that a small town just outside New York is that infested with junkies, that Ben is so intertwined with so many of them and that Holly had, apparently, been so oblivious that she didn’t know a kid who she’d diapered alongside Ben was shooting dope.
That, however, doesn’t diminish the sometimes difficult to watch tension, not only in the ‘will they survive?’ thriller aspect of the film but in the relationship between Ben and Holly.
Lucas Hedges is superb in what is a cliched role -- junkies are junkies and it’s difficult to bring anything new or insightful to the portrayal of someone who is controlled by addiction. But his pain and desire to stay straight are palpable, as are his guilt and the responsibility to those he has hurt -- especially his family.
Roberts, back in the spotlight with her TV series “Homecoming,” is as good as she has ever been playing Holly, who, as the backstory is revealed, has struggled for years raising Ben and Ivy, but has maintained the strength and love that she uses to anchor the movie.
It is also from Holly’s perspective as much as her son’s that “Ben Is Back” illustrates how the opiate crisis has hit the middle class -- be it a confrontation with a physician, hiding all the prescription drugs and valuables while Ben is distracted by his siblings, the disapproving looks from neighbors or the consolation and bonding with the mother of another junkie.
“Ben Is BacK’ opened in major markets on Dec. 21, making it one of the most depressing holiday movies ever. But the Christmas connection is just the framing device for this instructive, if harrowing, look at addiction, its impact on a family and, perhaps, the chance of survival.