"BEN IS BACK" — 3½ stars — Lucas Hedges, Julia Roberts, Kathryn Newton, Courtney B. Vance; R (language throughout and some drug use); Broadway; running time: 103 minutes
A lot can happen in 24 hours.
Set during a single 24-hour period on Christmas Eve, "Ben is Back" follows a mother scrambling to deal with the unexpected return of her son from rehab. The teenage Ben (Lucas Hedges) has struggled with opiate addiction ever since getting hooked on painkillers after a snowboarding accident when he was 14. As the film opens, he's 77 days sober and has managed to get a daylong furlough from his rehab clinic to spend Christmas with his family in Yonkers, New York.
The furlough is a surprise to his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), who returns home from a Christmas pageant rehearsal to find her son waiting in the driveway. It's not exactly a happy reunion: Ben's sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is instantly suspicious, still reeling from previous encounters gone bad. Ben's stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) has similar sentiments. Holly is hopeful, saying, "this time will be different — you'll see," but upon entering the house, she immediately starts hiding prescription medications.
After some back-and-forth, Holly agrees to let Ben stay under certain conditions — namely that he's not allowed out of her sight. She makes him take a drug test, he passes and the countdown begins.
As Ben joins in on his family's holiday activities, we get a painful and moving image of the damage he has wreaked on the community. A trip to the mall leads to an encounter with an old high school friend who assumed Ben was dead. When Holly insists on attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting with her son, Ben is forced to confront a girl who used to buy drugs from him. It soon becomes clear Ben may never truly be able to come home, and when the family returns from the pageant to find their home burglarized, they realize their problems may be even more serious than they thought.
As the plot escalates, the story focuses on the relationship between mother and son, and Roberts does an excellent job portraying a woman desperately trying to help a child who may be consciously manipulating her. Hedges is spot-on as Ben; you can never quite tell when he's being sincere or when he's playing a part in order to satisfy his addiction. It isn't the easiest thing to watch, but for anyone who has had to cope with such things, it will surely be relatable.
"Ben is Back" comes from a director known for his exploration of family dynamics. Peter Hedges wrote the screenplay for "About a Boy" and later directed Steve Carell in the 2007 comedy-drama "Dan in Real Life." But "Ben is Back" is nowhere near as whimsical as those films, and there's no attempt to inject humor into the subject. Yet, "Ben is Back" may carry Peter Hedges' most powerful message about family bonds to date.
There's a lot of similarities between "Ben is Back" and the recent film "Beautiful Boy," which starred Carell as the father of a teenage boy dealing with substance abuse. But rather than leading to a criticism of Hollywood redundancy, "Ben is Back" offers a valuable complement to the other film and reinforces the seriousness of its issue.
As with "Beautiful Boy," questions of performance and production in "Ben is Back" are almost beside the point. People who leave Peter Hedges' film are only going to be asking themselves how best to solve a problem that seems to be running wild.
"Ben is Back" is a moving portrait of addiction and the determination of a parent, and the harrowing subject matter alone is enough to justify the film's R rating, but the movie also draws that rating for intermittent profanity.