Julia Roberts gives a truly outstanding performance in Peter Hedges’s poignant new family drama Ben Is Back. Written and directed by Hedges, the film also stars the director’s son and current Hollywood favourite Lucas Hedges (Manchester By Sea, Lady Bird, Boy Erased) in this inspired, if slightly uneven, tale about a family’s struggle to cope with their teenage son’s addiction and unsteady recovery.
It’s the day before Christmas and Holly Burns (Roberts) is shocked beyond words when she pulls into her driveway to find her teenage son Ben waiting outside the family house. Ben, you see, has been in a rehab facility for the last couple of months and swears to have seventy-seven days of clean living. For his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the family has been here before and witnessed the young man’s manipulation first hand, which doesn’t stop Holly from welcoming the young man with open arms, even of she has to watch him like a hawk to keep him away from temptation.
Things take a turn for the sinister when the family home is broken into and their dog Ponce is kidnapped, sending both and Ben and Holly into a race against time to get him back before Christmas morning. But first Ben has to narrow down the list of all the people who would want to harm him and his family.
Peter Hedges offers an engaging and at times deeply moving film, which is surprisingly never dampened by the contrivances of its hugely accessible screenplay. And although the rest of the story soon descends into an overly melodramatic showdown, Ben Is Back never strays too far from its original premise which is built around the idea of redemption and hope amidst the utter despair and helplessness of a parent fighting to save their child from destroying everything around them.
Roberts, who in my mind was grossly overlooked for a best actress nod at this year’s Oscars, puts in a magnificent turn as a woman who simply refuses to give up on her child. For his part, Lucas Hedges gives yet another outstanding performance in a year which saw him take some highly challenging and eclectic roles.
Overall, Ben Is Back might not present a wholly original idea, especially when you compare it to Felix van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy which was released earlier this year and dealt with a similar idea, but it still manages to be thoroughly engaging whilst broaching serious subjects relating to addiction and the ramifications of a prescription drug epidemic which continue to destroy lives and families with no end in sight.