Ju­lia Roberts is un­for­get­table in ‘Ben is Back’

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Jo­ce­lyn Noveck AP Na­tional Writer “Ben is Back,” an LD En­ter­tain­ment/Road­side At­trac­tions re­lease, is rated R by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica “for lan­guage through­out and some drug use.” Run­ning time: 103 min­utes. Three stars out of four.

In one of Ju­lia Roberts’ many heart­break­ing scenes in “Ben is Back” — and they’re pretty much all heart­break­ing — she lays down the law to her 19-year-old son, a re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dict who’s shown up un­ex­pect­edly for Christ­mas.

“You have one day,” Holly tells Ben with all the au­thor­ity she can muster. She’ll be on him like a hawk, she says. She’ll even sleep on his floor. “For 24 hours, you’re mine, all mine,” she con­cludes. “Got it?”

And there’s the heart­break­ing part — what Holly has to know deep down, and what Ben surely does de­spite his obe­di­ent nods, is that he will never be hers, all hers. It doesn’t work that way. She can be the tough­est and fiercest and most lov­ing mother on the planet, but she can’t save her son from him­self — not for long, any­way.

Need the Kleenex yet? This comes in the first few min­utes of the film. Bet­ter bring a box.

“Ben is Back,” writ­ten and di­rected by Peter Hedges and star­ring his son, Lu­cas Hedges, is one of two re­cent films on teen ad­dic­tion star­ring the most tal­ented young ac­tors of the mo­ment (“Beau­ti­ful Boy “starred Ti­mothee Cha­la­met.) Hedges is as ex­cel­lent as he was in “Manch­ester By the Sea,” but it’s fair to say the movie be­longs to Roberts. It’s a ca­reer peak, and a per­for­mance that de­serves to be seen no mat­ter how crowded your hol­i­day moviego­ing sched­ule.

Di­rec­tor Hedges has said he wrote the film to ex­plore a scourge — opi­oid ad­dic­tion — that’s af­flicted his very own fam­ily. If there’s a key mes­sage here, it’s that youth ad­dic­tion can wreak havoc on any fam­ily, re­gard­less of class, race, geog­ra­phy or any­thing else. Here it’s leafy, up­per-mid­dle class Westch­ester County, but it could be Any­where, USA.

We be­gin on a snowy Christ­mas Eve morn­ing. Ar­riv­ing home from church choir re­hearsal, Holly and her three other chil­dren — a teen daugh­ter and two young­sters — en­counter Ben stand­ing in the drive­way, in an un­planned visit from his sober liv­ing fa­cil­ity.

Holly is thrilled — and scared. Watch Roberts fight dread with forced op­ti­mism as she chirps to her hus­band, Neal (Court­ney B. Vance): “He’s got the sparkle back! He’s clearly do­ing bet­ter.” All the while, she’s hur­riedly emp­ty­ing medicine cab­i­nets.

Neal ob­jects but then re­lents; it’s Christ­mas. At first, things go well. But a trip to the lo­cal mall sets off trou­ble. Peo­ple from Ben’s for­mer life — he was a dealer, not sim­ply a user — start to learn he’s back. Dur­ing a peace­ful evening at church, some­one ran­sacks the fam­ily home and steals their beloved dog.

Guilt-rid­den, Ben leaves; Holly hunts him down. To­gether, she in­sists, they will find who­ever meant him harm, and do what it takes to re­cover the dog.

It’s ter­ri­fy­ing to watch Holly sit in the car as Ben en­ters a for­bid­ding drug den. At this point you may won­der: All this dan­ger, for a dog? But the dog is a sym­bol; Ben has hurt the fam­ily and would risk any­thing, even his life, to re­pair those bonds. Or is he just say­ing that?

For Holly, a night with her son be­comes a hellish jour­ney through their bu­colic home­town. It’s sud­denly a dif­fer­ent place. “I used there,” Ben says, point­ing to one spot. “I robbed some­one there.” Sit­ting in a late-night diner, he con­fesses that his push­ing caused the death of a friend.

Still, Holly finds ev­ery which way to for­give her son’s trans­gres­sions. “If you re­ally knew me, you’d be done with me,” he says. “I know you!” she in­sists. Roberts is hugely ef­fec­tive here at por­tray­ing both in­tel­li­gence and will­ful blind­ness. Even when Ben aban­dons her at a gas sta­tion in the mid­dle of the night, her only goal is to save him. In the dis­ori­ent­ing dark­ness, she finds her­self mak­ing de­ci­sions that might shock her in the light of day.

Writer-di­rec­tor Hedges mostly stays away from speechi­fy­ing — other than in a very few over-scripted mo­ments — and lets his two tal­ented stars run the show. Es­pe­cially Roberts, whose face the cam­era rarely leaves — and why would it? Her ter­ri­fied, de­ter­mined mother is one of the more un­for­get­table por­tray­als of the year. Leave the Kleenex home at your peril.


This im­age re­leased by Road­side At­trac­tions shows, from left, Court­ney B. Vance, Lu­cas Hedges and Ju­lia Roberts in a scene from “Ben is Back.”

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