Christmas Eve is a time for relaxing, buying and wrapping presents at the last minute, and attending church for the first time of the year. In Ben Is Back, that’s exactly how the starts out for Julia Roberts’ Holly, with the festivities just beginning for her suburban middle class family. All is going as expected until Lucas Hedges’ Ben appears. An addict visiting from rehab, Ben’s arrival seems as a Christmas miracle for Holly, at least at first. For his fourth feature, director Peter Hedges returns to the familiar ground of the discordant family celebration he explored 15 years ago in Pieces of April. Through her husband and daughter’s scepticism, Holly clings to hope. “This time it’ll be different, you’ll see.” Her words brim with confidence, and just for a moment, she even believes them.
With the family on board with Ben’s presence, Holly sets about including him in the Christmas celebrations and organisation. The dialogue oscillates between heaped sentimentality and genuine feeling, somewhat hampering the build of empathy. “I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” Ben says in one instance, and many other lines are similarly weighted with cliché. But when he sits to share his story at an addict’s meeting, criticism melts away. In moments like this during Ben Is Back, the actions, reactions and words of the characters feel utterly natural, and totally believable. Much of the film relies on Hedges’ wonderful performance as Ben — even through the soppier lines, Hedges finds sympathy. Holly is arguably Roberts’ best role since Erin Brockovich, with the actress giving herself over to the helpless desperation of a loving mother. The two develop an intense relationship over the first half of the film that is both easy and striking to watch.
Dissatisfied with the positive progression, the writer-director Hedges (father of Lucas) opts for a darker tone in Ben Is Back’s third act, turning the movie from an emotional drama to an almost taut thriller. Any sense of naturalism dissolves, but the horrifying fact remains that none of the events taking place are beyond the realms of believability. It is an odd place to take the film, and the transition across genres is not particularly smooth. Hedges builds danger from the impressive emotional connection established between mother and son, but there is a sense of disappointment that this could have gone another way. A more intriguing aspect of the plot earlier on is Holly’s double standard when it comes to her son: she berates a doctor for prescribing Ben addictive pain medication at an early age, but insists that it’s not Ben’s fault he got his friend hooked on heroine. It is a pleasure to see Holly refusing to give up on Ben, deciding again and again to stay on his dangerous trail. But a narrative confrontation with these motherly responsibilities never transpires.
There are a number of fantastic films about addiction, but not many communicate so well the fear that an addict faces. Inside Ben’s eyes, his regret and pain are so clear, giving him a suitable reason to be terrified of his predicament. Ben has no idea what might happen, but with Holly always there to protect him, he has hope on his side. Hedges succeeds when the action/reaction balance feels natural, with Ben’s fear driving his actions and Holly’s blinding devotion informing her reactions. Even if Ben is Back tries a little too hard to ramp up the stakes, the fact remains that Hedges and Roberts’ performances make for an incredibly powerful on-screen relationship.
Dan Sareen (@WanttheMoonCo) is a London based film critic and enthusiast. He regularly writes reviews for online publications including Flickering Myth and Culture Whisper. Dan is a lover of all genres, but finds particular enjoyment in crime movies.