Ben Is Back (4 stars)

Ben Is Back

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges join forces for an emotive drama centring on the anguish of addiction

A prodigal son comes home to his mother for Christmas – but has he really reformed? Add actors Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges to this scenario and it's surprising that this emotive domestic drama, centring on the anguish of addiction, didn't make more of a mark during awards season.

Roberts is at her nervous-grinning, hand-wringing best as Holly, the mother of three who's both terrified and thrilled when twentysomething Ben (Hedges) arrives at the festive family home for an unexpected visit. Why unexpected? He's supposed to be residing at a facility for recovering heroin addicts. The question of whether or not Ben is as recovered as he claims hangs over everyone – from his siblings to his stepfather to the audience. The tension is racked up further when a break-in takes mother and son on a race-against-time road trip, all the more compelling for being presented in real time, or thereabouts.

While the latter is gripping, Ben Is Back is at its best when pausing on the everyday challenges facing an addict. Potential triggers crop up everywhere – from the attic at home to the mall, where Ben's former cohorts slink around giving him the nod. There's an air of parental hysteria about the portrayal of the pale, concave-faced drug addicts who used to play ball in the park when they were kids. But if writer-director Peter Hedges (Lucas's father) doesn't have close experience of addiction, he has certainly done his research. And his son – who was so terrific in Manchester by the Sea – entirely convinces, using tiny but telling facial reactions that communicate temptation, pain, sorrow and, possibly, the decision to relent.

Despite sentimental and melodramatic elements, there's a sad sense of authenticity to this portrait of family love in a suburban America that's being quietly devastated by a street drug.

General release from Fri 15 Mar.

Ben is Back

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 43min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Peter Hedges
  • Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance
  • UK release: 15 March 2019

Ben (Hedges) comes back to his family for Christmas when he’s supposed to be at a facility for recovering heroin addicts, to the alarm of his mother Holly (Roberts). Roberts is great and Hedges is entirely convincing, in this emotive domestic drama. Sometimes sentimental, but with sad authenticity.