Ben is Back review – Julia Roberts can't save middling addiction drama

Strong performances from the Oscar winner and Lucas Hedges enliven a patchy film about a mother dealing with the return of her addict son

It’s Christmas Eve and as the Burns family prepares for the big day, they encounter a surprise visitor. In most situations, the unexpected return of a son and brother at this time of year would be met with warmth but it’s not that simple with Ben (Lucas Hedges). He’s a recovering addict, who informs them that his sponsor agreed that a last-minute trip back home for the holidays could be good for him, away from rehab, despite the problems that could potentially arise.

While her husband Neal (Courtney B Vance) and daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) look on with mistrust and concern, Holly (Julia Roberts) is unable to maintain such reserve. She excitedly mills around him, a mother thrilled to see her son where he belongs once again. But in her quieter moments, away from Ben’s sight, we see a more cautious side, hiding prescription drugs and jewelry, a painful awareness of Ben’s all-too-recent troubles.

It’s an intriguing set-up and writer-director Peter Hedges’ decision to restrict the action of the film to a 24-hour period, devoid of flashbacks, helps to increase tension and provides him with a difficult challenge as a storyteller. It’s in the earlier scenes, as we see Holly’s internal conflict play out, when the film works best, showing us just how grindingly difficult it can be to love an addict. It’s the second film premiering at this year’s Toronto film festival focusing on the relationship between a beleaguered parent and their drug-taking son, after Felix Van Groeningen’s tough, unsparing drama Beautiful Boy. That film was flawed but based on the memoirs of two people who went through the nightmarish journey to recovery and as a result, it possessed a raw authenticity.

Given that this isn’t based on such accounts, there are broader strokes here with less acutely observed details. As events progress, Hedges’ script becomes sloppier with distractingly forced conflicts and the film makes an uneasy lurch into the thriller genre, as Holly and Ben find themselves heading into the local underworld. It’s a shame as investment soon turns into disbelief as Hedges betrays his characters to progress his story. When Holly makes an early agreement with Ben in order for him to stay, she insists that he must remain within her sight at all times and given how many triggers there are for Ben in not just the house but the local area, it’s important for him to be quarantined. It’s then infuriating to see this soon dissipate in order for drama to arise with Holly letting him explore the house by himself, taking him to the mall to buy gifts and turning her back at moments when it’s thunderingly obvious she shouldn’t be looking away.

Since the film is focusing on opioid addiction, there are also some clumsy attempts to try to justify its relevancy. Admittedly, it’s well-intentioned and some of the subtler moments do paint a picture of small-town America hiding a dark secret of dependency and loss. There’s also a smart nod to how Ben’s skin colour has allowed him to get away with so much already, with Holly’s husband noting: “If he were black, he’d be in jail right now.” But these moments are soon sacrificed for some PSA-level preaching and Roberts is given a gratingly on-the-nose freakout scene at a drive-in pharmacy to really hammer the point home. Her range is as dependably varied as we would expect but, as also seen in another freakout scene, this time in a police station, Hedges is clearly grooming her for awards attention and again it adds to an overcooked feeling that only increases as the film hurtles to the end. She works well with her on-screen son, played by the real-life son of the writer-director, and he’s adept at making us believe how his charm has let him abuse people’s trust so often.

There are good intentions and good performances here, but they’re squandered in a movie that isn’t quite sure what it should be and how far it should go.

  • Ben is Back is showing at the Toronto film festival and is released in the US on 7 December

Contributor

Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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