His smile doesn’t phase his sister or stepfather.
Saying all the right things just makes them, and us, question his sincerity.
But “This time will be different” and “I’ve got a good feeling about this” means different things to his mother. She wants to believe. And she and she alone has not given up.
“Ben is Back” is domestic drama that brings America’s opioid crisis home, that captures the whirlwind of destruction that one addict brings to a family and a town.
Through vivid, wrenching performances by Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, it personalizes the statistics, and personalizes the glib talk show therapists who counsel “Let them go, you can’t save them.” Not if it’s your kid.
Even if he’s lied to you, repeatedly. Even if he’s robbed you. Even if his many treks to rehab have all but bankrupted you. Even if he got a nice girl from town hooked with him, and she died.
Roberts’s performance of wavering faith, veering from tough love to extreme nurturing, makes “Ben is Back” one of the best pictures of 2018.
Roberts plays Holly, the amusingly unfiltered mother to three kids from two marriages, prepping them for the church Christmas pageant in suburban New York (Sloatsburg Village).
Ivy (Kathryn Newton) will sing a solo. The younger kids will be an angel and a sheep. But all bets are off when they get home from rehearsal and there’s Ben (Hedges), sitting on the icy stoop.
The younger siblings are delighted, but Ivy all but flips out, frantically yelling “Mom MOM,” texting her stepdad (Courtney B. Vance) to “Come home NOW.”
“He’s got the sparkle back in his eyes.”
Writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,” “Dan in Real Life”) runs us through a textbook “coping with an addict” regimen. Holly tells Ben he is to “not leave my sight.” She will drug test him. As he plays with the little kids, she hides jewelry and prescription drugs, going room to room, methodically junky-proofing the house.
Her husband might implore Ben, who has left rehab 77 days into treatment, that “there’s too many triggers here,” this isn’t a good idea. Mom is hellbent on making it work, sure that this will NOT be another Christmas ruined by charming, stealing, using and abusing Ben.
Manipulator that he is, Ben gets their trepidation. “You’re all still scared of me.”
Just what an addict about to be chased away from the house would say. It seals the deal, and before we know it, Mom is taking Ben out shopping for gifts for the family, a trip where his past — and hers — catch up to them.
He runs into a couple of fellow users. And she has a mall food court encounter with a senescent family physician, who doesn’t remember her or Ben or assuring her that the pain meds he was prescribing weren’t addictive. Her furious, “I hope you die a painful death” (smiling all the while) is the first great jolt of the movie. Dragging Ben to the cemetery and asking where he wants to be buried is the second.
As Holly shows us inner strength we haven’t suspected she has, Ben gives away the genuine struggle that the charm offensive obscures. He’s trying.
“I’ve gotta find a meeting — now!”
As “Ben is Back” takes us from that confessional AA meeting (presided over by Tim Guinee) towards the chickens-come-home-to-roost third act, the grim reality of it all sinks in. If it can happen to this family, it can happen to anyone.
And if it can happen to anyone, how many families would have the strength, patience and faith to fight the good fight, long after most of us would have given up?
There’s a melodramatic turn in the third act of “Ben is Back” that is less convincing than everything that’s come before. But it’s not a deal breaker for me — within the realm of the possible, if not the most obvious and logical resolution to that “reap what you’ve sewn” direction the movie reaches for.
That takes nothing from the moving, emotionally harrowing moments, the stellar performances and the intensely personal story that “Ben is Back” is.
At a time of year when finding a movie that’s “about something” is a chore, here’s one that fulfills that promise.
And If Julia Roberts doesn’t make you cry with her here, you might want to work on that empathy thing.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and some drug use
Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Edges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Tim Guinee, David Zaldivar
Credits: Written and directed by Peter Hedges. A Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:43