An idyllic little town is capped in snow. A choir sings Christmas hymns with warm solemnity. Seated in a quaint church, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) beams, eyes closed as she lets the bliss of this moment envelop her, followed by the arms of her adorable children. She takes her happy brood home, the younger two gleefully chattering in the back, while her teen daughter playfully eye-rolls in the front. Their posh car rolls up to a grand house. Inside, there are materials for a whole day of Christmas fun, crafting, baking, and decorating. But all of Holly’s delicate plans are shattered when she sees what’s on her front step. Her son. Ben Is Back. She greets him with a mix of exaltation and trepidation. And so begins writer/director Peter Hedges’ poignant drama about family and addiction.
Hedges’ own son, heralded ingendude Lucas Hedges stars as Ben, a young addict in recovery, who has unexpectedly come home for Christmas. As elated as Holly is to see him, she’s quick to hide away all her pills and jewelry too. With a sweet but stern tone, she tells Ben’s teen sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) to keep an eye on him as he plays with their half-siblings downstairs. Holly knows all too well how fragile is this bliss. Her determination to protect it makes her laugh too hard, smile too wide, and maybe forgive too much. Her husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) arrives home and is immediately on alert. They’ve been burned by Ben before, and twice on Christmas, as Ivy helpfully reminds.
Ben takes after his mother. His smiles are friendly but often forced. His jokes come easy but serve to deflect from something too unpleasant to confront. Both mother and son want this shared holiday, this shot at redemption, so badly that they agree to give it a day before he’ll return to treatment. There are rules, of course. Ben will not use drugs. He will not leave her sight. But Holly cannot predict how simple things like a trip to the mall or church could throw her family’s world into a fresh hell. Ben faces temptation everywhere. And Holly is forced to face this when the family’s home is broken into, their beloved dog stolen. To get him back, Ben and his mother take a tour of his sins, uncovering the squalor, violence, and depravity that lies beneath her home’s pretty suburban exterior. “I used there. I stole there,” Ben relates, with a challenging shame. During this night’s quest, his mother will learn many of Ben’s most harrowing secrets. After each horrid revelation, her love is unfaltering and unconditional, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like hell.
The second half of Ben is Back spins from drama to thriller, as Holly leaves behind her cozy neighborhood and holiday cheer for drop-ins on shattered lives, shady pawn shops, and treacherous back alleys. And all the way she will fight for her son any way she can. When she accompanies him to an AA meeting, she covers her anxiety with chipperness, chirping hellos to everyone as she enters. When she comes across Ben’s childhood friend who needs to “get well,” she’ll use him for info while reprimanding him to call his mother. And when she crosses paths with the seemingly senile doctor who prescribed a 14-year-old Ben addictive painkillers, her mega-watt smile sinks into a scathing scowl as she hisses, “I hope you die a horrible death.” Ben is Back sizzles with agony and tough love, and that’s Roberts, on fire in every frame. Holly’s earnestness hurts because she knows addicts lie, and all your efforts to save them can be for naught. And so we sit with her and watch Ben, hoping for his sake and his family’s that this won’t end with him dead.
Roberts gives a riveting and layered performance, and Lucas is her solid scene partner. When Ben is jolly, he’s undeniably charming, singing a silly song or cracking dirty jokes with equal ease. When Ben is sullen, there’s something terrifying and volatile in Lucas’s downcast gaze. And when Holly asks what he felt when high, the weary frankness in Lucas’s reply stings, “Safe. Loved. Alive. Whole. Something nobody—not even you—could make me feel.”
In this film about a white upper-middle-class family dealing with addiction, Ben is Back addresses their privileges even amid this horror. Frustrated, Holly’s husband Neal remarks how Ben’s whiteness has protected him from jail. Later, Holly notes that the family’s wealth has afforded him the opportunity to go to rehab multiple times. Over the course of the night, Ben is haunted by the ghosts of his past who were not afforded such second chances, those who are homeless, imprisoned, or dead. Ben is Back focuses on the Burns family, but does not ignore that drug addiction is a bigger problem, one whose harm spreads through families and communities. Yet, it is one that our society would rather politely ignore. Holly’s friendly neighbors ask after Ivy, not Ben. Her local pharmacist refuses to carry an emergency first aid kit for overdoses, snidely scolding about not encouraging “irresponsible behavior.” Ben is Back shows how this judgemental neglect adds isolation to the obstacles facing addicts and their families. And all of the above is chilling.
Alive with breath-snatching performances, Ben is Back is a humane drama that refuses to make voyeuristic tragedy porn of the life of an addict. By binding us to Holly, Peter Hedges won’t allow us a comforting distance from Ben or his addiction. Roberts is a ruthless tour guide through the pain of loving someone trapped in this struggle. When she gasps in desperation about how “fucked” a particular moment in this journey is, we gasp with her. Not judging her for a bad call in an impossible situation, but perhaps realizing, “But for the grace of God, go I.”
Header Image Source: Roadside Attractions