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Movie review: Actors shine in addiction drama 'Ben Is Back'

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges star in "Ben Is Back," now showing at Duluth 10.

Lucas Hedges is hitting expert status playing versatile, smart and sometimes heartbreaking characters in "Boy Erased," "Lady Bird," "Manchester by the Sea." In "Ben Is Back," he's an opioid-addicted teen mixing up his short-lived sobriety with a Christmas Eve pop-in with the fam.

To the chagrin of little sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and supportive but fed-up stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance), Ben is embraced by Holly (Julia Roberts), the mom who won't let go.

Written and directed by Peter Hedges, it's the first big collaboration for father and son.

Here, director Hedges establishes Holly's steady levity with her children during a holiday rehearsal. Seeing her light up and slowly unravel during Ben's arrival, you sense that while his go-to is pain killers, Holly's attention on Ben is her addiction of choice.

Roberts' work spans 30 years, and her on-screen emotions, playfulness, adoration, jest, seem like familiar gems pulled out of a well-polished treasure chest. At times, you question her sincerity or if it's old hat, but in this film, she has the opportunity to dig deep and go dark, and she takes it.

Actor Lucas Hedges has an edge here. One minute, Ben's playing with siblings, the next, he's having a mini meltdown. Hedges subtlety anthropomorphizes addiction, its manipulations and how it takes the soul captive, bouncing between boyish laughs and dark eyes.

It's hard to watch Holly and Ben feed off each other, enabling and pacifying with a quiet and sick desperation. In another scene, Holly digs through Ben's jean pockets looking for drugs in public.

"This is humiliating," he says.

"No, this is love."

Vance as stepdad Neal is steady, pragmatic, holding fast their boundaries, albeit alone; and Newton's Ivy is the voice of reason. She's guarded, holding close her affection for her brother, reminding them all of their collective past.

There's a safety in their presence, and the film is more interesting resting in the family dynamics.

Director Peter Hedges' lens is sometimes handheld, always a little fuzzy, giving the film an appropriately surreal, home-video vibe. In early scenes, Ben is often partially framed, in line with a character not showing his full self. This move, each time from the perspective of Holly, perfectly dots an urge to see more.

Peter Hedges' figurative pen is behind "About A Boy," "Dan In Real Life," all formats of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" He knows what he's doing, and this script smartly reveals the family's past in good time through well-executed dialogue.

That said, a home invasion feels like a contrived device that propels mother and son through Ben's past and the less interesting section of a film that's part family drama, part mini crime thriller.

It's a helpful device, though, to delve into the repercussions of this epidemic that's hitting hard many a home. And with films like this and this fall's "Beautiful Boy," maybe we can expect more.

While this one's hard to watch, the performances, the message, that addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer, may elevate "Ben Is Back" higher in the heap.

Grade: B-

"Ben Is Back"

Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance

Writer/director: Peter Hedges

Time: 1:43

Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some drug use

Now showing: Duluth 10

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346