With America’s opioid crisis, much of the most acclaimed dramas involved stories about family, and two of the most interesting involved drug addiction. While “Ben is Back” completely drifted under the radar, it’s an interesting and often compelling drama about drug abuse, and how often times drug abusers can drag much of their personal demons and past in to the lives of those that they love. I won’t say that I completely loved “Ben is Back,” but I appreciated its inherent tale of a mother racing to help her son, in spite of the odds being stacked against her over and over.
Nineteen-year-old Ben Burns, the oldest of three children, unexpectedly returns to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve. Ben’s mom, Holly, is relieved and welcoming but wary of her son’s drug addiction. Over a turbulent twenty four hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother’s undying love gets put to the test as Holly does everything in her power to keep Ben clean. But after an incident, Ben accidentally puts his family in danger and has to work to fix his mistakes, all the while Holly follows after, anxious to help.
I’m not usually a Julia Roberts fan, but she’s managed to win me over later in her career for her willingness to work outside of the goofy romance comedy junk for more interesting human tales. “Ben is Back” is one of those stories in which she’s less the heroic protagonist and more of a perpetual victim. Roberts as Holly Burns is a mother I’ve seen far too many times. When we meet her, she’s someone with a consistent sense of denial who is willing to believe in the best in her son Ben at the peril of her other two children. Lucas Hedges is great as son Ben, a drug abuser who unexpectedly turns up at his family’s house without explanation. Although Holly is very warm and welcoming, she’s forced to face her other family members that scrutinize Ben relentlessly.
They do so right down to his often ambiguous explanation for how he skipped out on rehabilitation. Kathryn Newton is very good as younger sister Ivy who can see right through Ben’s charade and she spends much of her time undermining much of what Ben says, and even puts Holly to task as she prematurely celebrates what little progress Ben has made in his life. There’s some palpable tension that director Peter Hedges manages to inject, especially as the film takes an unexpected turn from a family drama, to a crime thriller. Once Ben begins to re-connect with a lot of people from his past, he’s pulled in to a potentially deadly situation involving a drug dealer. This proves to be a perilous situation as Ben’s involvement with him is the last lingering thread of love and trust he holds with his family.
As Holly, Roberts is very good as the eternally loving mother who is willing to do whatever it takes to hold on to her son, and she conveys a sad sense of desperation throughout her journey to help him. “Ben is Back” is not what I was originally expecting, as it’s much darker and suspenseful than it’s originally advertised as, but it comes out strong as an entertaining and heartfelt story about redemption, addiction, familial bonds.