Writer/director Peter Hedges (Pieces of April, About a Boy) casts his son Lucas (Manchester by the Sea, Boy Erased) alongside Julia Roberts in this emotionally gut-wrenching story of a mother trying to keep the peace at home when her drug-addicted teen comes home for Christmas. Lucas plays the addict, whose been clean and sober for a few months leading up to the movie’s opening. But when he leaves rehab and shows up unexpectedly, his step-father and sister worry what might happen. Roberts plays the mother, doing her damnedest to love her son and give him what he needs, while simultaneously juggling the needs of her husband and other children. Sure enough, things get out of control and the family is torn apart – possibly never to be put back together again.
One of the things I appreciate about Ben is Back is that it paints no one as a villain or a hero. The mother, the son, and even the antagonistic stepfather and sister are all portrayed as complicated, believable human beings. I loved these characters — all of them. I felt their concerns, their hopes. I understood their toughness and I felt their yearning for forgiveness. In short, Ben is Back gave me all the fucking feels — and I love that shit. And I appreciated even more how Peter Hedges withholds key pieces of information until the moment when it will have the greatest impact on the story. Roberts gives what I’m pretty sure is her finest performance to date, and Lucas Hedges gives one that rivals his Oscar-nominated turn in Manchester by the Sea.
For three-quarters of its run time, Ben is Back had me in the palm of its hand – a masterfully made and powerfully absorbing film that I’m sure I will watch many more times. Its only falters a little in its final act. Things get a little too dark and the film begins to border on melodrama more than I’d have liked. But It’s still mightily powerful, deeply moving stuff. And the more drugs permeate our culture, the more we’re going to need stories like this to help us understand how best to help the ones we love.