Hollywood films about addiction tend to be tasteful, well-meaning awardsy dramas. Now, with Ben is Back, director Peter Hedges has created something a little bit different: a half-and-half movie with plenty of standard-issue addiction drama courtesy of Julia Roberts as a suburban mum trying to keep her 19-year-old son off opioids at Christmas. But other scenes are directed with the pure suspense of a thriller. What Hedges wants to do here is make you feel the dread and nausea of a parent living with a teenage addict – the prickle of fear walking into his bedroom. Will he be dead on the floor with a needle sticking out of his arm? And it works, mostly. I don’t think Ben is Back hangs together perfectly – but there were times I forgot to breathe for a second or three.
The film begins like a home invasion thriller – as a young guy attempts to break into a house. Not a burglar it turns out – but Ben (played by the director’s son Lucas Hedges), the family’s oldest kid, who is back from rehab unexpectedly for the holidays. His mother Holly (Roberts) beams – as only Julia Roberts can beam, full megawatt dazzle – delighted to see him. This time will be different. Look how his skin glows. Ben is back! Still, she hides her jewellery at the top of the wardrobe. Ben’s sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is all eye-rolling cynicism at this latest outbreak of sobriety. Stepdad Neal (Courtney B Vance), who’s paying for the rehab, is stony faced.
As for Ben, he’s 77 days clean. But everywhere he goes he’s confronted by life as an addict. At the mall another kid cheerfully greets him with “Dude, I thought you were dead.” At church he sees the mother of a girl who overdosed after he got her hooked. How can he live with what he’s done? How does any addict? There’s brilliant stuff here about recovery and how addiction destroys the fabric of a family. Admittedly, you may feel like you’ve had your fill of troubled rich white guys – with all their second chances and five-star rehab opportunities. (Particularly so soon after another film about a privileged young addict – Beautiful Boy.) As Ben’s stepdad puts it: if he was black he’d be in prison.
I never fully buy into its truth… but this is one of those rare Hollywood movies that keeps you guessing.
Technically, the film is a two-hander. But Julia Roberts puts everyone in the shade, even Hedges – one of my favourite young actors (he played Casey Affleck’s nephew in Manchester By the Sea). You could cast a unicorn in a movie with this woman and the only thing anyone would say is, “Nice horse, but did you see JULIA ROBERTS?” She turns the dimmer down here a little to give a performance that’s a full emotional workout. In a fast food joint she bumps into the family’s old doctor, now retired, who first prescribed Ben painkilling pills aged 14 after a minor snowboarding accident. Holly unleashes all her anger at this sick old man, who clearly has dementia – an unflinching scene that feels real and raw in its emotional incorrectness. At other times she wonders if her son’s addiction is her fault. Like her, I found myself constantly scanning Ben’s face: is he using again?
In the end, the family home is broken into (not by Ben). So begins a long night of the soul as mother and son drive around Ben’s old stomping grounds. It’s here that the film starts leaking suspense. And I never fully buy into its truth – some of the big emotional outbursts fall flat. But this is one of those rare Hollywood movies that keeps you guessing, where you don’t see the ending coming 20 minutes in.