By RANDAL C. HILL
On one level, Ben is Back is a raw study of America’s opioid crisis, which is currently claiming an average of 16 lives each day.
On another, it’s about the struggles of nineteen year-old Ben Burns (Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges), who shows up at his family’s upscale New England home for an unannounced Christmas Eve visit.
Ben, a drug addict, has brought only a vaping pen and no overnight items with him. He claims that his sober living sponsor has encouraged him to sign himself out and go home for Christmas, even though Ben has spent a mere 77 days at the private facility he now calls home.
The soft-spoken young man will soon test the love of everyone who cares about him.
His mother, Holly (Oscar winner Julia Roberts), is determined to keep the erratic teenager on the narrowest of paths and makes him promise to spend the next 24 hours with her at all times. Reluctantly, Ben agrees.
Holly talks up what she sees as positive changes—Ben has gained weight and has even got “sparkle” back in his eyes. At the same time, as she is voicing support, Holly is hiding pills and items of value in the house.
Painful truths begin revealing themselves when the two go to the local mall for some last minute presents. Ben is greeted by someone saying,“Hey, Burns, I thought you were dead,” and Ben draws surprised—no, amazed—looks as certain people pass him by in the crowd.
Ben owes money to some local folks, it seems, and Holly gives him cash after Ben says, “If I don’t deal with this, then it could be worse next time.”
Later Ponce, the lovable family dog, is kidnapped. Holly and Ben frantically go in search of him and are drawn down increasingly darker paths as Holly learns just how much Ben has kept from her over the years.
It becomes easy to see how a person such as Ben Burns can become lost, and just how worthy he is of being saved.
But will he be?
Director and screenwriter Academy Award nominee Peter Hedges—Lucas’s father—is the main creative force behind Ben is Back, the Roadside Attractions/Black Bear Pictures release opening on December 7th.
Supporting roles are nicely filled out by Courtney B. Vance as Neal, Ben’s disciplinarian stepfather, and Kathryn Newton as Ivy, Ben’s younger sister. The focus,though, wisely stays on Holly and Ben throughout the film’s cringe-worthy 103 minutes.