‘Ben Is Back’: Julia Roberts has never been better than she is as mom in denial
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Saw some wag on Twitter making reference to the “Beautiful Boy Erased Is Back” movies season, and it’s a pretty good joke because it IS easy to get a little lost in the weeds regarding “Beautiful Boy,” “Boy Erased” and “Ben is Back” — especially because two of these films feature the ubiquitous and greatly talented young actor Lucas Hedges.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s not the fault of “Boy Erased” that it came on the heels of “Beautiful Boy” (and by the way, those two films are VERY different), and it’s not the fault of “Ben Is Back” that it bears a number of surface similarities to “Beautiful Boy.” All three films are worthy of our time and interest.
So let’s talk about “Ben Is Back,” a powerful and engrossing and devastatingly effective work, featuring the finest performance of Julia Roberts’ career. As a fiercely protective (sometimes to a fault) mother of a drug-addicted teenager, Roberts burns right through the screen and grabs our hearts. This kid just might kill her, and that’s hardly a figure of speech — but if that’s what it comes to, she’ll make that sacrifice if it means saving her son.
There’s not a breath of Roberts’ performance that doesn’t feel utterly and thoroughly real.
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Writer-director Peter Hedges’ understated but intense family drama features the filmmaker’s son, Lucas, as the title character, a 19-year-old opioid addict who unexpectedly shows up on the doorstep on Christmas Eve, courtesy of a 24-hour pass from his counselor at the rehab center.
Ben’s mother Holly (Roberts) is overjoyed at this miracle, as are his two little half-sisters, who worship him. After all, Ben must be doing great if his counselor thought it was a good idea for him to come home for Christmas, right?
But Ben’s teenage sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton, who also played Hedges’ sister in “Three Billboards …”) and Holly’s husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) are skeptical at best about this surprise visit. Neal only reluctantly agrees to let Ben even stay with the family over the Christmas weekend, and let’s just Neal has ample reason to question just about everything Ben says.
Nestled on a snowy corner in a small town in New York State, the family’s home looks like something out of a Christmas card, and for a few fleeting moments it appears as if Ben’s presence really is a holiday dream come true. But everything from a mother-son trip to the mall to a Christmas Eve Mass to Holly accompanying Ben to a group meeting is shaded with a sense of uneasiness, a feeling Ben is still struggling with his addiction and is still entangled with dark elements from his past.
“I thought you were dead,” says one former friend of Ben’s when he bumps into him. Later, a quick visit to the home of one of Ben’s high school teachers opens Holly’s eyes to the depths of Ben’s past problems.
On one level, Holly registers these moments, but time and again, it appears she might be even more in denial than Ben as she repeats 12-step mantras and keeps making excuses for her son, even as her husband and her daughter plead with her to face reality before it rips apart the family.
“Ben Is Back” is filled with harshly poignant scenes, e.g., when Holly goes cold at the very sight of the doctor who prescribed heavy doses of painkillers for Ben when her son was 14, or when Holly has a harrowing encounter with a childhood friend of Ben’s who has been ravaged by addiction and cries out, “I changed your diapers,” and wonders how it all went to hell.
Even when Holly makes a series of questionable decisions in the interest of protecting her son, even when we share her husband’s and her daughter’s frustrations with her actions, we understand and empathize with Holly, thanks to the blazing performance by Roberts. Yes, Holly might well wind up burying her son, but not before she puts up the fight of a lifetime. We get that. We might not completely understand it or endorse it, but we get it.
As things spiral ever more out of control over a 24-hour period, “Ben Is Back” shifts gears and becomes as much a thriller as a family drama, and some of the developments stretch credulity. Through it all, though, there’s the magnificence of Julia Roberts, and the fine performances from Hedges, Vance and the rest of the cast. They do great justice to this finely constructed slice of fractured family life.
‘Ben Is Back’
Roadside Attractions presents a film written and directed by Peter Hedges. Rated R (for language throughout and some drug use). Running time: 103 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.