When the title character shows up early in “Ben Is Back” — just before Christmas, at his family’s big house in a suburban town north of New York City — the mood tilts from domestic drama toward domestic horror. Even after the menacing, hooded figure skulking around near the driveway is recognized as a son and brother (played by Lucas Hedges), the queasy feeling of terror doesn’t quite abate. Ben, unexpectedly home from rehab, scares almost everyone.
The rest of “Ben Is Back,” written and directed by Peter Hedges (father of Lucas), sustains and intensifies that clammy, anxious feeling. The suspense is generated by a deceptively simple question, one that haunts most stories of addiction: Will Ben use again? He has sworn that he won’t, and part of him doesn’t want to, but the other part has made him a liar, and worse, many times before. The questions his behavior creates for the people who love him are equally excruciating. Can they trust him? Should they believe him? How much more damage will he do, to them and to himself?
[Peter and Lucas Hedges never meant to make a movie together.]
A challenge in a movie like this — for its makers as well as its audience — is that there are few original or satisfying answers to any of those. One of the cruelties of addiction is the way it strips away individuality, making all addicts’ stories the same. Ben’s way of being in the world, as he swings from anger to panic to heartfelt promise-making to abject remorse, looks like a familiar performance. His disease is acting through him, as if he were possessed by a demon that is also his double.
Lucas Hedges, like Timothée Chalamet in “Beautiful Boy,” the season’s other alliteratively titled tale of a young man fighting a drug habit, deftly captures the nuances of this condition. He is entirely credible as an almost-grown man whose credibility has virtually collapsed, who is in a constant state of war with himself.
The conflict is not his alone. Ben’s sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), wants him gone. His stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), wonders how many more chances Ben deserves, noting that a young black man in his circumstances would not have had as many. Ben’s much younger half-siblings (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser) and the family dog, for their part, adore him unreservedly. All of which leaves Ben’s mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), in an agonizing position. She wants to support and protect her beloved oldest child without endangering or alienating the rest of the family, and in spite of everything that has happened she still has unwavering faith in her own maternal powers. If anyone can solve Ben’s problems — can bring Ben back to the sweet, smart, decent boy he used to be — it’s surely his mom.
But what if she can’t? “Ben Is Back” is really Holly’s story, and notwithstanding the all-around excellence of the cast, it’s very much Roberts’s movie. This isn’t a matter of ego or showboating. On the contrary, what is so moving and effective about Roberts’s work here is her shrewd subversion of her long-established persona.
Holly exudes the tough, elegant self-confidence that has long been part of the Julia Roberts brand. She seems like a woman accustomed to getting her way, not because she is complacent or overly entitled but because she expects the world to recognize the moral authority of motherhood. She has made sacrifices, worked hard, raised good kids and as a result has earned a certain amount of deference. People and institutions — doctors, police officers and pharmacists, as well as her kids — are supposed to listen, and to accede to her wishes.
A measure of privilege is baked into this assumption, and “Ben Is Back” is partly about the way the current scourge of opioid and heroin addiction has contributed to the demoralization of the American middle class. As she follows Ben through an increasingly harrowing day and night, Holly gets a tour of an underworld that exists in the shadows of her sunny, stable reality.
It starts at the mall, where she sees the elderly physician whose painkiller prescription she blames for Ben’s habit, and where Ben crosses paths with an old acquaintance. As the winter darkness descends, mother and son enter an inferno of grieving parents, sexual predators, ruthless dealers and hollowed-out users. The scale and depth of the horror are beyond anything she had imagined. The demon her son has been battling turns out to be a monster whose tentacles are everywhere and whose appetites are beyond reckoning.
Peter Hedges, whose previous features as a director are “Pieces of April,” “Dan in Real Life” and “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” keeps his sentimental tendencies on ice here. He also keeps Ben and Holly’s ordeal safely within the boundaries of convention, focusing on the particulars of one family’s pain. Holly’s parental crisis is also a social crisis. She may be too deep in her own suffering, and the film may be too absorbed in her feelings, to grasp that fully. But part of her terror — and ours, on her behalf — comes from the sense that she is radically and brutally alone, and that the hundreds of thousands of parents in her situation are too.
Ben Is Back
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Ben Is Back
Rated R. Desperation and Heartbreak. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.
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