After a screening of his latest film, writer/director Peter Hedges greeted the audience with an apology for the emotional rollercoaster he’d just put them through. It’s true, Ben is Back wastes no time throwing viewers into the middle of a family’s personal nightmare surrounding one member’s opioid addiction. Arriving home unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, Ben (played by the director’s real-life son Lucas Hedges) has 77 days clean, but it’s obvious over the next 24 hours that there’s no escape for anyone from the consequences of his past. Anchored by a powerhouse performance from Julia Roberts, Peter Hedges once again showcases his talent for depicting the humor and intimacy of a dysfunctional family in crisis.
While Hedges’ previous scripts (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy) have broached dramatic subjects, they have always contained a healthy balance of comedy mixed with the turmoil. Ben is Back is no exception, handling the serious matter of addiction by isolating the drama to interactions between those most affected by it without sacrificing the innate humor that comes from being part of a family. Creating an authentic dynamic, the cast seamlessly portrays the family’s traumatic past purely through subtext. Greeted with a combination of love and trepidation, Ben is allowed to stay under the condition that his mother will act as his warden. While overjoyed to see her son, Holly (Roberts) also rushes behind his back to hide her jewelry and prescription drugs, determined to shelter him from any temptation on her watch. Emotions run high and everyone braces for impact, certain that having him home means something is bound to go wrong.
Lucas Hedges continues his streak of impressive performances, delicately balancing Ben’s guilt with his fight to reach another day of sobriety. Being home is a trigger and he’s not quite ready but he’s trying. Or is he? One of the first things he tells his mother is that she should never trust an addict. The scenes between mother and son are the emotional foundation of the narrative and Roberts is the hero of this story. What’s admirable, and believable, is that she’s not stretching the character beyond anything more than a mother doing whatever it takes to protect her child. Fiercely maternal and funny from the moment we meet her, it's clear that Holly’s kids are her life and that nothing is more important to her than their well-being.
When asked about his approach to writing a tough-as-nails character like Holly Burns, Hedges cited his wife and mother as his main inspiration, with a shout-out to the strong female characters written by playwright Tennessee Williams. No stranger to writing bold matriarchs, there are shades of Bonnie Grape (Darlene Cates) and Joy Burns (Patricia Clarkson) from Pieces of April in Holly. As much as Holly tries to remain positive and supportive about her son’s disease, Roberts doesn’t refrain from showing every ounce of worry on her face. From her first joyous reaction to seeing her son on her doorstep to her tearful exhaustion from a night spent trying to save him from himself, it’s Roberts we sit next to on the rollercoaster. Her cautious optimism and unwavering support of her son rings true in a way that will have mothers everywhere applauding her choices.
Ben is Back confronts the subject of addiction by inviting us into the home of an addict where it’s impossible to turn away from the wreckage caused by the disease. Ben’s past hangs over the house like a dark cloud, but at the same time the agony of keeping him at arm’s length is too much for his mother to bear. Setting the events during Christmas increases the sentimentality and our compassion for this family’s time together. Reminding us that not everyone dealing with this terrible disease has this kind of support or the privilege of returning home.