Suburban mother Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) cautiously welcomes her 19-year-son Ben (Lucas Hedges) home for the holidays. Why the hesitation? The young man has gone AWOL from rehab. Mom may be mollified by her son’s vow to return to treatment the day after Christmas. But will he keep his promise? And even with 77 days of treatment behind him, can he stay clean until then?
That’s the premise that fires up Ben Is Back, a drama from writer-director Peter Hedges (a.k.a. Lucas’s dad) about a mother and son dancing around the issue of trust over 24 hours of fraught tension. There’s both joy and a threat in its title: Addicts are notorious liars, and Ben has proved himself a master of the game. “If he were black, he’d be in jail by now,” says Holly’s resentful, African-American second husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance), who’s been footing the bill for his stepson’s latest chance at redemption. Luckily, Holly sets up rules. The lad stays where she can see him or all bets are off. His sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) expects the worst, though Holly’s two younger children with Neal respond freely to their fun brother.
Still everything seems initially sunny, if a little fraught — until some encounters in his old neighborhood begin to paint a chilling picture of the boy’s past and a hint of things to come. At Christmas Eve mass, Holly encounters Beth (Rachel Bay Jones), the mother of a girl who overdosed after Ben got her hooked back in out-of-control junkie days. Returning home, the family find their house vandalized and their dog kidnapped. It’s not a random break-in. Someone is being sent a message by drug dealers higher up the food chain.
Finding a pet is an obvious plot contrivance to send Ben and his mother (she won’t let him search on his own) on a wild ride through the night in which secrets are revealed and lives are threatened. Through it all, Roberts runs a gamut of emotions that remind us of what a powerful actress she is. Her vital and touching teamwork with Hedges, who keeps getting more impressive with each role, is what makes the film work; the heart and soul they put into this familial story almost make the overly familiar addiction-drama beats beside the point. And thanks to them — and Hedges Sr., a director with an uncanny knack for finding the emotional core of a scene — Ben Is Back ends up becoming into a penetrating look at how addiction wrecks lives from both sides of the parent-child equation. It’s unflinching and unforgettable.