Ben is Back tells the story of Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges), a nineteen-year-old drug addict who unexpectedly returns to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve. From the moment she first sees him, Ben’s mom, Holly (Julia Roberts), welcomes him openly yet remains cautious of her son’s drug addiction. Over a turbulent twenty-four hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother’s unconditional love is put to the test as Holly fights ceaselessly to keep her son sober.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges (About a Boy, Dan in Real Life), Ben is Back is a gritty family drama that proves both compelling and authentic. Although the set-up of the film seems relatively straightforward, the script continues to surprise with its willingness to stare down the inner darkness of its characters. This level of nuance provides the cast with an opportunity to showcase their talent, especially Roberts and Hedges. Without question, this is Roberts’ best role in years and, arguably, one of the best performances of her career. Young Hedges’ portrayal of the damaged and conflicted Ben also holds his own up against Roberts’ powerhouse performance, proving that he continues to grow into his talent.
Throughout the film, Ben constantly reminds his mother that truth is a luxury. While he repeatedly quotes his sponsor’s call for brutal honesty, he also reminds his mother that he cannot be trusted. Committed to delving into his history with unflinching honesty about what he has done and with whom, Ben becomes a walking testament to the belief that we ‘reap what we sow’. Recounting every face, every moment, and every action of his journey, he [now] recognizes that there have been consequences to his actions in ways he could have never considered, whether it be to others or his own soul. (In addition, by setting the film through Christmas Day, the film also adds another layer of complexity by juxtaposing Ben’s battle with addiction with a time of year often seen as celebrating new beginnings.)
On the other hand, Holly’s views her son through the eyes of love and, as a result, has difficulty accepting that he is as ‘bad’ as he believes. While this type of behavior is typical for a parent in this situation—who wouldn’t want to believe the best in their child?—things become more complicated as Holly begins to blur the lines of truth and lies in order to convince herself that things are better than they are. (In fact, at one point, Holly even begins to reframe history by trying to persuade Ben that his behavior really wasn’t all that bad.) There’s a complexity to Roberts’ role as she blends her performance as Holly with both unconditional grace and blurred truth. Her love for Ben pursues him relentlessly as her ‘lost sheep’. However, at the same time, her belief in Ben also borders on manic through her unwillingness to accept the truth about his life. Are there boundaries between love and grace? Ben is Back reveals the complexities of unconditional love and commitment to one’s child, especially when addictions and mental health come into play.
Anchored by remarkable performances by its leads and a solid script, Ben is Back creates a world where one’s hidden darkness must be faced in order to step out on the other side. In doing so, it also manages to successfully subvert the ‘family drama’ by demonstrating the complexities of a parent’s love for a broken child.
Ben is Back is in theatres now.