Ben Is Back **1/2

A strong first half gives way to a cliché-ridden conclusion, but Julia Roberts is in top form throughout. 

Is it worth $10? Yes  

“Ben Is Back” asks a fascinating question: What do you do when there’s little reason for hope, yet you can’t bring yourself to give up? The construct of the question manifests as a loving mother (Julia Roberts) welcomes her recovering heroin addict son (Lucas Hedges) home for Christmas even though she knows he could easily relapse, and is a danger to the family.

It’s Christmas Eve in upstate New York. It’s cold with a gray, overcast sky, but snow is on the ground and there are happy holiday vibes in the air. After morning errands, Holly (Roberts) returns home with teenage daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and young twins Lacey (Mia Fowler) and Liam (Jakari Fraser). In her driveway is her oldest son from her first marriage, Ben (Hedges). He’s not supposed to be there, and aside from Holly, everyone is wary about his arrival, including her husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance).

You see, Ben is the aforementioned heroin addict, and he’s supposed to be in rehab. His sponsor said it’s okay to go home for a night, even though home has more triggers for a relapse than anywhere else in the world. Ben is allowed to stay as long as he adheres to a number of conditions, one of which is not leaving Holly’s side. It’s important to note that Ben seems to genuinely want to enjoy the holiday with his family. The past, however, has a way of presenting itself in spite of his best intentions.

“Ben Is Back” was written and directed by Peter Hedges, who gets a solid performance from his son Lucas and a great performance from Roberts. Equal parts fierce and emotional, Roberts is terrific as she shifts from one emotional extreme to the next. For example, Holly and Ben go shopping, and she is happy to buy him clothes for the twins’ holiday show. Before he enters a changing room, she checks his pockets for drugs. “You didn’t check my shoes,” he jokes before closing the door, and she smiles, but then her face quickly transforms into panic. This is Holly throughout the movie: Holding onto the idea of, and enjoying as much as she can, normalcy with her son, before unfortunate reality takes over her conscience.

BenIsBack2These bonding scenes in the first half of the film are its best moments. Roberts and Hedges share an affable chemistry, we like them, and hope they can avoid catastrophe. Unfortunately the second half derails the narrative, as the story goes into the after hours criminal world. The tone gets darker, and it doesn’t fit the straight drama the film succeeded at being during its first hour.

In its totality, “Ben Is Back” plays as a testament to the strong mothers who’ve stuck by their children through the worst of the worst, even when all reasonable hope was lost. And that’s the real truth here: Loving mothers never entirely lose hope, and Roberts captures that conviction, and unconditional love, with wonderful candor.

Did you know?
Roberts didn’t meet with mothers of addicts because she found it selfish to ask them to share hardships for her benefit. She also said she read extensively about the topic, and felt more than prepared for the role.

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