Before Ben Is Back even hits the ten-minute mark, Holly (Julia Roberts), a mother whose son has come home for Christmas despite his new and fragile sobriety, tells her daughter, “This time will be different. You’ll see.” The way such a stereotypical line is slyly and forebodingly inserted into the film so early on made me wonder if Ben Is Back really would distinguish itself from traditional addiction dramas. It turns out that it does, but not in an entirely good way.
The film opens early-ish on Christmas Eve, as Ben (Lucas Hedges) arrive home unexpectedly from the rehab facility where he lives. Holly is delighted to see her son, but her husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) and her daughter (Kathryn Newton) have major reservations. There is some reference to incidents from before and something that happened last Christmas – the greatest strength of writer Peter Hedges’ screenplay is that it allows for the kind of ambiguity that makes conversations feel genuine – but in the end, Ben is allowed 24 hours with his family. And every moment of that will be under his mother’s watchful eye.
What I wish Peter Hedges, who also directs, had realized is that that narrative was enough. Half of Ben Is Back is an immersive and complex story of family relationships, trust, love, loyalty, and emotional wounds that may never heal. The acting is superb, with standout performances not only by Roberts and Hedges, but also by Vance, who is very good in a role with more nuance than it initially seems. The dialogue is subtle, allowing simple exchanges of just a short sentence or two to provide the history and landscape into which the story fits. But after an hour of searing and real exploration of human relationships, Ben is Back takes a significant turn, and the film slips off track, never to fully come back.
So as not to give anything away, I’ll just say that Holly and Ben end up spending the night of Christmas Eve in a seedy, drug-infested part of the New York burbs. The conflicts shift from being internal to being primarily external, and even when the focus is still on Holly and Ben’s relationship, it’s a flimsy approximation of the interactions they had earlier in the story while buying church clothes or attending an N.A. meeting together.
What’s most frustrating are the occasional moments when their relationship does show through the dramatic turmoil of drug deals and stolen dogs (no, really). In the midst of their adventures on the mean streets of Yonkers, there’s an excellent scene in which Holly – never a pushover – tells Ben he can fuck right off for criticizing Neal, who would call the cops on him, but whose money has also sent Ben to rehab more than once.
Ben is Back is half of an excellent film: the first half is subtle and smart, the second half is over the top. Julia Roberts is memorable as a mother in an awful situation who is neither perfect nor enabling. The dialogue is spare in a way that trusts the audience, but the arc of the story is imbalanced and odd in a way that let’s viewers down. That Ben Is Back could have been the dark and difficult Christmas film that’s so rare makes it all the more disappointing when it goes off the rails.