If Charles Dickens had written a story about the opioid crisis, he might have come up with something like Ben is Back.
The story is set in the holiday season in the home of a prosperous family. In the film’s opening moments, they are preparing for the church Christmas pageant, complete with costumes and flashing cameras and hubbub, managed with multitasking magic by with-it mother Holly (Julia Roberts).
Over this cozy scene falls a shadow in the form of the family’s drug-addicted son Ben (Lucas Hedges). Holly (her daughter is named Ivy) returns from rehearsal to find him prowling in the driveway. He’s supposed to be in the midst of a stint in rehab, but there he is. Home to steal? Ben says no, he just got released early, but few believe him. Certainly not his wary sister (Kathryn Newton) who immediately notifies her stepdad (Courtney B. Vance). He arrives with a look on his face that suggests an unhappy repeat history with Ben, and there’s a set to his jaw that says Ben’s third strike was called some time ago.
Holly’s reaction is more complex. Roberts plays her as a woman embodying opposing realities — possessed of a bone-deep suspicion of Ben’s story, but vulnerable enough to nurture a belief in the possibility that he’s changed. Her solution: Trust but verify. Mostly verify. She allows Ben to stay as long as she administers drug tests, and therefore constructs a fragile domestic truce.
To this point, the movie is mostly credible, and uniformly well-acted. Hedges (working with his writer-director father Peter) plays Ben as haunted and furtive, and events transpire to show that he has good reason to be both.
Here the movie takes a melodramatic turn, and it’s so abrupt and severe a change of direction that many viewers will probably check out. There is a break-in at the family home, a stolen dog (!), and to set things right, Ben — in his fragile state and on the knife-edge of relapse — must revisit the sordid people and precincts of his recent past.
Since he cannot be trusted alone, mom comes along for a midnight Christmas Eve tour that reveals people Ben knew, things he did. We meet those who fed his addiction, those who exploited it, and we assess the damage Ben did when he was lost to opioids.
There is value to this — the movie shows the way that addiction cuts across class lines, taking victims where they find them. Just beneath the town’s placid surface is a parallel narrative — invisible or ignored — of suffering and sorrow.
Yet the movie also approaches the kind of wishful thinking that another recent addiction movie, the fact-based Beautiful Boy, took pains to caution against. In that film, a father learns that he cannot save his son by loving him, that no amount of sacrifice and devotion is enough (his support group mantra: You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, you can’t cure it).
Ben is Back, operating with the flexibility of fiction, flirts with the idea that a mother’s intuition and love can be decisive, even as it acknowledges the pitiless, relentless nature of the disease.
Or maybe all the movie wants to propose is that miracles — rare as they are — can happen.
Directed by Peter Hedges. With Lucas Hedges, Julia Roberts, Courtney B. Vance, and Kathryn Newton. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.
Running time: 103 minutes
Parents' guide: R (drug use)