Julia Roberts shows her acting chops in "Ben Is Back," the story of a suburban mother who has had more than her share of hellish turbulence due to her 19-year-old son, Ben's drug addiction. Ben's been in treatment for 77 days and, while his family wants to embrace him and welcome him back into their home, the ghosts of Ben's past follow him wherever he goes. And they aren't friendly.
Aactor Lucas Hedges (the 21 year old has been seen in a range of movies this year, Jonah Hill's "mid90s," and "Boy Erased"), stars as Ben. His father is the writer and director of the film, Peter Hedges, and digs deep into how far a parent might go for the love of their child. Roberts as Holly insists on trusting her son, despite warnings from her new husband Neal, played by Courtney B. Vance, who shields the young children he's had with Holly from the turmoil that obviously started ions ago, and that begins again as soon as Ben returns home. He's been granted a 24-hour pass from the rehab, so he must be doing OK, right?
Not even 24 hours after Ben's back in the family fold, things go from bad to worse. And Holly is in the thick of it. She sees a childhood friend of Ben's outside a convenience store. His body is ravaged from drugs and he tells her he'll do anything for his next fix. She's at the hands of another parent's wrath; he's lost his daughter to an overdose and blames Ben, and Holly gets sympathethic, yet shunned looks, shunned by former friends who don't want to associate with her or her druggie kid.
After someone breaks into their home on Christmas, the family dog disappears. As much as Holly doesn't want to admit it, she knows it isn't random, and whoever took the pet has a vendetta against her son.
There have been bad-kid-comes-home and-wreaks-havoc-dramas ad nauseum, cable TV network Lifetime is filled with them, but writer-director Hedges doesn't go for the typical. Instead he makes this the story of a mother who will do anything for her child, no matter what risk, it's also a mother-son bonding story with emotion and a solid story at its core. It's a wonderful vehicle for Roberts to show her grit and skill as a dramatic actress.
This is a role she can sink her heart, soul and teeth into, and she does, and brings you along with her, and she delivers one of the rawest performances of her career. There's no "Pretty Woman" giggle here, or the affectation she's brought to some other dramatic roles. Director Hedges creates a cold, Christmas setting, and while the family home looks like something out of a Hallmark card, there's a starkness in the neighborhood, too, and a built-in isolation, which grows more for the suburban mom as she discovers the seedy underbelly that lurks around the corner, and, of which her son was a part of. You can read between the lines, her asking herself those parental questions: "Why didn't I know? What did I do wrong? What could I have done to stop it?"
Too bad the other characters besides Holly and Ben are so thinly drawn. Little attention is paid to its other characters, except for them being window dressing or a vehicle to help move the storyline. Vance's Neal is pitifully one dimensional, he's either angry or on the other end of the telephone pleading for his wife to come home. Ben's sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is much in the same situation throughout the movie. The seedy drug dealer, the angry parent, the couple's two small children, the girl who tries to pick up Ben at a twelve step meeting, all inconsequential especially up against the depth of the two main characters.
But none of that matters when Hedges and Roberts are on screen together. You believe that Ben wants to make things right for his mom, it's just his addiction is bigger than both of them. And, Roberts's Holly, is willing to go against every odd for her son, putting her own life and that of her family's as risk.
And, to the credit of this film, it's never a preachy disease of the week crisis movie, but, instead focuses on a microcosm that reflects the big picture. It may not be warm and fuzzy for the holidays, but it is a depiction of real life. And Roberts is this movie's biggest gift.