“Ben Is Back” is a deceptively fitting entry in the holiday movie season, one that combines the nation’s opioid crisis, a tweaked Christmas movie template, and the gift that keeps on giving, Julia Roberts.
The A-lister teams with 21-year-old Lucas Hedges (previously Oscar-nominated for “Manchester by the Sea”) for the story of a loving mom who has her eyes opened to just how bad her drug-addicted son’s situation is on Christmas Eve. Writer/director Peter Hedges (aka Lucas’ father) crafts a tightly packed tale (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities through December) that starts like emotional gangbusters, loses its way a bit, yet finds a way home balancing gut-wrenching episodes and hopeful feelings.
Preparing to ready her little ones for a Christmas pageant and finish her holiday prep, Holly Burns (Roberts) receives an unexpected surprise at her upstate New York door in the form of 19-year-son Ben (Lucas Hedges), who’s supposed to be in rehab. He tells Holly and his stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) that he’s on a 24-hour leave, though the festive season hasn’t always been the best in keeping Ben sober.
While Neal and Ben’s sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) are concerned about his being there – especially around two younger children – Holly lacks any sort of reticence. She’s simply glad to have her boy back for Christmas, taking him clothes shopping, escorting him to an AA meeting and doing whatever she can. Unfortunately, the family’s return home from the pageant is met with disaster: Someone’s broken into the house and kidnapped their beloved dog, and Ben suspects one of his old drug buddies.
From there, “Ben Is Back” becomes a sort of reverse “A Christmas Carol”: In the wee hours, Holly and Ben revisit assorted shady folks from his past and Holly learns hard truths about Ben’s addiction and mistakes he’s made. The movie also turns into something of a Lifetime-style crime thriller, with lots of over-the-top melodrama to be had as Holly desperately drives all around town when Ben goes rogue.
But Roberts is splendidly raw and dynamic throughout the plot’s ups and downs. Between this, Amazon’s streaming series “Homecoming” and last year’s weeper “Wonder,” we’re enjoying a definite Juliassance, and “Ben Is Back” is Roberts’ best film work since her Oscar-winning turn in 2000’s “Erin Brockovich.” As Holly goes from naïve parent to angry mother on a mission, the love never wavers for her struggling child as she faces all of her worst nightmares on one harrowing night.
And per usual, Hedges is outstanding in yet another awards-caliber film. (Someday this kid might just give an average performance, though probably not when his dad’s in the director’s chair.) While not as strong a showing as his lead role in the gay-conversion drama “Boy Erased,” Hedges gives Ben a great dark edge and agitated, nervous energy to go with his natural charisma, so the audience (and Holly) can’t totally be sure if he’s being straight with his issues at any given moment.
In tackling teenage drug abuse, “Ben Is Back” is more successful than the narratively similar “Beautiful Boy” in showing the effects of an addict on family members, particularly when it comes to the mental aspect of trying to get well. Having the talents of Roberts and the young Hedges on display, with a gripping push-and-pull between them as mother and son, is the needed bow on this holiday-ready presentation.