‘Ben Is Back’ is Roberts’ finest work in years

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Brian Truitt Colum­nist

“Ben Is Back” is a de­cep­tively fitting en­try in the hol­i­day movie sea­son, one that com­bines the na­tion’s opioid cri­sis, a tweaked Christ­mas movie tem­plate and the gift that keeps on giv­ing: Ju­lia Roberts.

The A-lis­ter teams with 21-year-old Lu­cas Hedges (Os­car-nom­i­nated for 2016’s “Manch­ester by the Sea”) for the story of a lov­ing mom who has her eyes opened to just how bad her drug-ad­dicted son’s trou­bles are on Christ­mas Eve. Writer/di­rec­tor Peter Hedges (Lu­cas’ fa­ther) crafts a tightly packed tale

( rated R; in the­aters Fri­day in New York and Los An­ge­les, ex­pands to ad­di­tional cities through De­cem­ber) that starts like emo­tional gang­busters, loses its way a bit, yet finds a way home bal­anc­ing gut-wrench­ing episodes and hope­ful feel­ings.

Pre­par­ing to ready her lit­tle ones for a Christ­mas pageant and finish her hol­i­day prep, Holly Burns (Roberts) re­ceives an un­ex­pected sur­prise at her doorstep in up­state New York in the form of 19year-son Ben (Lu­cas Hedges), who’s sup­posed to be in re­hab. He tells Holly and his step­fa­ther Neal (Court­ney B. Vance) that he’s on a 24-hour leave, though the fes­tive sea­son hasn’t al­ways been the best in keep­ing Ben sober.

While Neal and Ben’s sis­ter (Kathryn New­ton) are con­cerned about his be­ing there – es­pe­cially around two younger chil­dren – Holly lacks any sort of ret­i­cence. She’s sim­ply glad to have her boy back for Christ­mas, tak­ing him clothes shop­ping, es­cort­ing him to an AA meet­ing and do­ing what­ever she can. Un­for­tu­nately, the fam­ily’s re­turn home from the pageant is met with dis­as­ter: Some­one has bro­ken into the house and kid­napped their beloved dog, and Ben sus­pects one of his old drug buddies.

From there, “Ben Is Back” be­comes a sort of re­verse “A Christ­mas Carol”: In the wee hours, Holly and Ben re­visit as­sorted shady folks from his past, and Holly learns hard truths about Ben’s ad­dic­tion and mis­takes he has made. The movie also turns into some­thing of a Life­time-style crime thriller, with lots of over-the-top melo­drama to be had as Holly des­per­ately drives all around town when Ben goes rogue.

But Roberts is splen­didly raw and dy­namic through­out the plot’s ups and downs. Be­tween this, Ama­zon’s stream­ing se­ries “Home­com­ing” and last year’s weeper “Won­der,” we’re en­joy­ing a definite Ju­lias­sance, and “Ben Is Back” is Roberts’ best film work since her Os­car­win­ning turn in 2000’s “Erin Brock­ovich.” As Holly goes from naive par­ent to an­gry mother on a mission, the love never wa­vers for her strug­gling child as she faces all of her worst night­mares in one har­row­ing night.

And per usual, Hedges is out­stand­ing in yet an­other awards-cal­iber film. (Some­day this kid might just give an

av­er­age per­for­mance, though prob­a­bly not when his fa­ther is in the di­rec­tor’s chair.) While not as strong a show­ing as his lead role in the gay-con­ver­sion drama “Boy Erased,” Hedges gives Ben a great dark edge and ag­i­tated, ner­vous en­ergy to go with his nat­u­ral charisma, so the au­di­ence (and Holly) can’t to­tally be sure if he’s be­ing straight with his is­sues at any given mo­ment.

In tack­ling teenage drug abuse, “Ben Is Back” is more suc­cess­ful than this year’s nar­ra­tively sim­i­lar “Beau­ti­ful Boy” in por­tray­ing the effects of an ad­dict on fam­ily mem­bers, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to the men­tal strug­gle of try­ing to get well. Hav­ing the tal­ents of Roberts and the young Hedges on dis­play, with a grip­ping push-and-pull be­tween them as mother and son, is the needed bow on this hol­i­day-ready pre­sen­ta­tion.

MARK SCHAFER

Ben (Lu­cas Hedges, cen­ter) at­tends a Christ­mas pageant with step­fa­ther Neal (Court­ney B. Vance) and mom Holly (Ju­lia Roberts) in “Ben Is Back.”

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