The opioid crisis is smashing through society like a wrecking ball so it is not surprising to see a new wave of films focusing on suburban parents wrestling with their children’s drug addictions. This year alone has brought us Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back. While the latter is the stronger of the two films in almost everyway, it is not without its own problems.
On Christmas Eve, recovering addict Ben (Lucas Hedges) makes a surprise visit home which immediately puts his entire family on edge. Despite being 77 days sober, memories of his turbulent past, many of which are still fresh like an open wound, cause his mother Holly (Julia Roberts) to immediately hide any vices that might trigger a relapse. Though Holly is willing to see Ben as the improved man he claims to be, his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and step-dad Neal (Courtney B. Vance), who has taken out a second mortgage to pay for Ben’s numerous rehab stints, are more skeptical.
Given 24 hours to stay with the family, under the condition he remains within range of Holly’s loving but watchful eye, Ben seems to assimilate back into the family rhythms with relative ease. However, being back home also means that Ben must confront old demons that still haunt him. This is expedited when the family dog is stolen and Ben and Holly find themselves revisiting his past haunts in search of the thief.
Offering a more suspenseful take on the addiction genre, director Peter Hedges’ film feels more honest and urgent than one would expect. Both Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges give riveting performances that bring added weight to the mother and son dynamic. They especially shine when the film provides glimpses into the darker side of addiction and how the opioid crisis has impacted various facets of the community.
Unfortunately, Hedge’s script never seems willing to fully immerse itself into the darkness. It is content with simply dipping its toes in at various points. Similar to Holly, who is blinded by her unrelenting love for her child and constantly reassures him that “no one blames you,” Ben is Back never wants to assign blame.
Outside of a former doctor now living with Alzheimer’s, who got Ben hooked on painkiller’s at age 14, the film does not holds either Ben or Holly accountable for their actions throughout the film. This allows Holly’s numerous reckless decisions to be brushed off as a “mother’s love” whereas someone like the frustrated Neal, who accurately points out that Ben “would have been locked up a long time ago” if he was black, gets the brunt of Ben and Holly’s disdain and is left on the sidelines for most of the film.
Once you factor in the twist and turns that alternate between gripping and ridiculous, the film begins to unravel in a lopsided manner. Despite the strong performances, it is this unevenness that ultimately makes Ben is Back stumble instead of soar.