One of the first things you realize about Ben (Lucas Hedges) is that he has a lot of hiding places. There's the attic in his family's suburban New York home where he used to stash his drugs. After getting frisked for illegal substances by his mom, Holly (Julia Roberts), he slyly points out that she neglected to check his shoes. The house itself becomes Ben's hideaway after he flees rehab and drops by unannounced on Christmas Eve, setting in motion a frantic, harrowing 24-hour journey into the perils of addiction, the horrors of the American opioid crisis and the depths of a mother's tough love.
That's the idea, anyway. "Ben Is Back" turns out to have more than a few surprises up its own sleeve. It's overstuffed with good intentions and bad secrets: Odd yet consequential characters keep popping up out of nowhere, and startling twists arrest the narrative from behind. The writer and director, Peter Hedges (Lucas' father), practices a kind of social-issue sleight-of-hand. What starts off looking like a strained family dramedy quickly morphs into a grim expose of small-town malaise, which means you get multiple teachable moments for the price of one. Christmas really has come early this year.
I don't mean that (entirely) sarcastically. "Ben Is Back" may lose its way early and often, but it is rarely in danger of losing hold of your attention. If you saw "Beautiful Boy," the somber, muted recent drama about a father's struggle to save his meth-addicted teenage son, you might well prefer this movie's lively one-thing-after-another pileup by comparison.
The parent trying to do the saving this time is Holly, who's thrilled to have Ben home for Christmas, and all too willing to believe his eager assurances that he's clean and doing well. Ben's younger half-siblings, Lacey (Mia Fowler) and Liam (Jakari Fraser) are equally pleased to see him, but his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and his stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), are far less enthused. You can tell from their grim, concerned faces that bad things happened the last time Ben was in their house, and bad things are certain to happen again.
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And if anything feels true in "Ben Is Back," it's the unsettling sense that Ben is both utterly sincere and entirely untrustworthy. Despite the very real guilt and torment he feels at having repeatedly betrayed himself and his loved ones, he has also, like many addicts, mastered the arts of deception and doublespeak, whatever it will take to secure his next fix. You can't believe anything he says, however badly you want to.
This is due almost entirely to Lucas Hedges' moving, charismatic and damnably slippery turn. When Ben shares his story at a local Narcotics Anonymous meeting with Holly in tow, you can see the performative instincts beneath his self-flagellating honesty. You're not sure whether to be reassured by his pluck and wit, which are reassuring signs that his old self has not been entirely obliterated by his addiction – or saddened, as Ben himself seems to be, that everyone is still so willing to believe him.
Holly, being his mother, is the one most willing to extend him the benefit of the doubt, at least initially. But the dynamics shift as this mother-son outing unexpectedly becomes a mission. The movie opens a window onto a small town's criminal underbelly, one that turns out to be crawling with desperate users, scheming pushers and brazen opportunists. As Holly gleans disturbing new information about Ben's secrecy-shrouded past, she tries at every step to respond with forgiveness and acceptance.
There is something at once laudable and faintly risible about the filmmakers' decision to roll a home-for-the-holidays heart-tugger, a substance-abuse melodrama, a nocturnal thriller and a Julia Roberts crowd-pleaser into a single movie. To be sure, there are worse things a picture could do than use an accessible dramatic template to deliver an important PSA. And it's both poignant and subversive to see Roberts' mega-watt smile – once the most reliable bliss-out generator in the movies – suddenly flicker and die, in those moments when Holly realizes everything may not turn out OK.
At the same time, it's hard not to feel that Holly's big tell-off moments – the worst may be the one where she drags Ben to a cemetery and orders him to pick his burial spot – have been scripted to suit Roberts' outspoken, no-bull persona rather than the character's inner truth. And while the actress seems to relish the opportunity to show her emotional range, too often she seems to be running through a series of climaxes with little connective tissue. One moment Holly is bonding with the grieving mother (Rachel Bay Jones) of another young addict; the next she's angrily confronting the aging doctor (Jack Davidson) who prescribed Ben painkillers after an accident years ago, and whom she blames for his present woes.
In his previous movies, like "Dan in Real Life" and "Pieces of April," Peter Hedges has attempted to give the family dramedy an edgy art-house pulse, to invest sentimental formulas with heft and texture. "Ben Is Back" represents the culmination of this sensibility. A better, wiser movie might have approached the opioid epidemic in less sweeping, more affecting fashion, just as a more skilled hand might have achieved the fusion of genre filmmaking and sociology lesson it seems to be aiming for.
But there is more to admire than prudence, just as there is something to be said for swinging for the fences. By the end of this clumsy, audacious story – the title of which turns out to have a doozy of a double meaning – Ben will be stripped of every last secret and falsehood, left with no more room to run or hide. You believe him at long last, even if believing the movie is a trickier proposition.
'BEN IS BACK'
Rating: R, for language throughout and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes