JULIA Roberts was once America’s Sweetheart who shone in “Pretty Woman”, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and her Oscar-winning film, “Erin Brokovich”. But just like other top stars who get on in years, she now plays mother roles. After playing the mother of a little boy in “Wonder”, she is the mother of a grown up kid who happens to be a drug addict in “Ben is Back”.
The movie is a straight drama about a feisty mother who will do everything to help save and protect her beleaguered eldest son. Julia is Holly, who has two kids from her first marriage, Ben (Lucas Hedges) and Ivy (Kathryn Newton), whose dad abandoned them. She’s now married to Neal, an African-American (Courtney V. Vance), and also has two younger kids with him.
Set in a snowy town in Upstate New York, the movie starts with Holly watching Ivy and her two other children rehearsing for a Christmas play in church. When they return home, she is so surprised to see Ben waiting for them on the driveway.
Ivy and her stepdad are obviously not so happy about Ben’s presence because he’s been very delinquent in the past. But Ben says his visit was approved by his counselor and Holly says he can stay with them provided he will submit to a drug test and not leave her sight while they’re together through Christmas Day.
Ben asks Holly to take him to the mall so he can buy personal gifts for his younger half-siblings. When she agreed, you know right away this is the start of something bad. Holly confronts Ben’s former doctor who initiated him into drug use and wishes he’d die a horrible death. Ben sees an old friend and tells Holly he needs to attend a drug addicts meeting immediately, leading to even more terrible consequences.
They go to attend the Christmas pageant in church and when they get back home, their home has been vandalized and their pet dog, Ponce, is missing. Ben says he knows who got Ponce and Holly insists on going with him, despite Neal and Ivy’s protestations. The movie then becomes a Christmas Eve odyssey of some sort that puts mother and son in great danger.
Christmas is supposed to be the most joyous, wonderful time of the year, but not for the characters in this movie. Ben eventually has to escape from his mom to confront a vicious drug dealer who took his dog. But Holly is dead set on finding him and tries to track him down. You never doubt that she’s willing to put herself in harm’s way just to be able to save him and your heart just goes out to her as she discovers more of her son’s indiscretions, like giving sexual favors to a teacher just to obtain drugs.
But after a while, your interest in the film wanes as the characters seem to be always making stupid decisions. The first part is more involving as it’s a strong character-driven drama, but it starts spinning out of control from writer-director Peter Hedges’ hands when it forays into crime thriller territory involving a ruthless crime gang. It’s good the film is held together by the consistently fine performances of the lead actors.
Lucas Hedges (who’s the son of the director) is surely one of the more competent young actors in Hollywood today. He got nominated in the Oscars for “Manchester by the Sea” and gave equally strong performances in “Lady Bird”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Boy Erased”. As Ben, he gains our sympathy and empathy as a young man struggling with conflicting emotions in a very thorny situation as he faces his personal demons. He’s superb in that scene where he makes a sharing in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where he alternately shows confidence, introspection and also regret.
His relationship with his mom is the heart of the film and Julia as Holly is just terrifically expressive here in portraying various emotions she goes through in the rough ride she takes with her son in this one Christmas Eve they’ll never forget. Take note that the material is similar to “Beautiful Boy”, which is about a father’s (Steve Carell) struggle against the persistent drug addiction of his son (Timothee Chalamet).
Giving great support is Kathryn Newton as Ben’s smart sister who’s very skeptical and serves as the voice of reason as she’s been burned before by her brother’s constant lying. Hedges and Newton also played brother and sister in “Three Billboards”. One of the most touching scenes in the movie shows Julia talking with the mother of her son’s girlfriend who died of drug overdose. It’s heartbreaking to see the depth of suffering that mothers who give unconditional love to their kids experience because of their kids’ addiction.