[Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.]
A more nuanced and sobering addiction drama than some viewers might expect from the man responsible for gentle schmaltz like “Dan in Real Life” and “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” Peter Hedges’ “Ben Is Back” is the kind of white, middlebrow, ruthlessly effective look at the opioid epidemic that might inspire Hollywood to better engage with a crisis that’s become inescapable for the rest of the country. But the film is more than a wake-up call writ large. Beneath its overworked plot — and a Julia Roberts performance that toes the line between maternal desperation and movie-screen broadness — this is a tender and knowing story about the salvation that an addict can find within their family, and the toll that addiction can take on it.
Addicts constantly lie, but this film does not: Ben is indeed back (he’s played by Lucas Hedges, the director’s son). He’s back in snowy Westchester, after a 77-day stint in rehab. Back in the nice suburban house that his mom (Roberts) shares with his disciplinarian stepdad (Courtney B. Vance), their two young children, Ben’s angelic teenage sister (Kathryn Newton, who also played Hedges’ sister in “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”), and a dearly beloved dog named Ponce. And he’s back in time for Christmas Eve, which his unexpected visit will complicate in more ways than he could ever imagine.
From the moment Ben shows up on the front lawn with nothing but a hoodie and a vape pen, his family is on high alert. Even though the scruffy 19-year-old says that he’s doing great, and that his sponsor encouraged him to go home for the holidays, his sunken eyes tell a different story. Besides, it was only a few months ago that his mom, Holly, found him lying on the staircase with a needle on his arm. And that wasn’t the first time. In fact, as Holly is about to learn the hard way, Ben’s one of the more notorious addicts in town; it seems like there isn’t a junkie within 20 square miles who hasn’t run into him for one reason or another. He’ll see them at church for midnight mass, and at the AA meeting where he meets a girl who knows him from another life, and at the sketchy pawn shop where the movie ends up once the story kicks into gear.
Initially, Holly is thrilled that her son is home. Thrilled, but wary. She forces the kid to take a urine test, and insists that she keep a close eye on him for every single minute of his 24-hour stay. There are just too many triggers hiding in that house, and lurking in that neighborhood, and disguising themselves in the people who live there. Holly thinks that the whole mess is her fault, but she’s also furious with the rest of the family for giving up on one of their own.
Peter Hedges, who favors an opportunistic handheld approach reminiscent of “Rachel Getting Married,” flits between angles (and characters) fast enough that we can practically feel Holly being of two minds about things. She’s guilty one second, angry the next, and switches between those emotions so often that we soon understand she’s actually experiencing them both at all times — those emotions are constantly fighting behind her eyes, each one making the other hurt that much worse.
Most of the scenes in which Roberts’ understandably manic performance teeters into theatricality find the script forcing her to prioritize one of those reactions. In a film where even the wilder twists ring at least semi-true, there’s something demonstrably false about the part where Holly has a chance encounter with the (very senile) doctor who first prescribed Ben his opioids, and chews him out like she’s Erin Brockovich. That moment, and a handful of others like it, find Peter Hedges forgetting himself for a minute — forgetting that his film works because of what makes the story common, not what makes it exceptional. While the Burns family is in for the longest, most action-packed Christmas Eve of their entire lives, there’s a latent power in all of these challenges being crammed into a single day. For addicts, every day is an accomplishment. This, it seems, is how they all feel.
But really, Ben and Holly are in for a long night. Ponce the dog is kidnapped from the house when the family goes to church, and Ben’s stepdad — a thin character whom Vance wills into having three dimensions — puts the blame on him. And so the kid and his mom drive off into the cold, embarking on an impromptu wild dog chase that will take them down any number of dark roads, and expose Holly to all of the trouble her son was hiding from her.
Even now, he struggles to tell her the truth. Addicts say what they need to say in order to stay sick, and Holly beats herself up for believing any of it. It’s hard to blame her, especially as things grow a bit unbelievable; the third act takes a soft turn into organized drug trafficking, and while Hedges’ script keeps things sane and eventually finds its way to the perfect closing note, the film doesn’t need or justify the extra tension. At one point, Ben’s sister is using the GPS on her iPad to give Holly directions in the middle of a slow-speed chase, and it’s all just a little too much for a movie that knows how addiction is more than capable of generating its own awful excitement. Hedges has always pitched his writing to the people in the way back of the theater, even when he was making scrappy indies like “Pieces of April,” and so it’s not like these detours come as much of a surprise. But “Ben Is Back” proves that he’s best served by fighting his urges.
Lucky for him, his son is there to keep things on the right track. Lucas Hedges, who leveraged a bit part in a Wes Anderson movie into an Oscar nomination and a remarkably promising career, is more than capable of holding his own next to Julia Roberts. His clenched and wounded turn is suspended between hope and self-loathing as if by centrifugal force, as every new scene — every new thought — is a chance to throw it all away. Always underplayed, but never more than a millisecond from losing his grip, Hedges’ performance exists in the narrow space between coming back for a day, and being gone forever. Ben isn’t always as honest as the movie around him, and the movie around him isn’t always as real as the wayward teen who lends it his name. But you never doubt how easily the kid could be lost, or how worthy he is of being saved.
Roadside Attractions will release “Ben Is Back” in theaters on Friday, December 7.