Julia Roberts does her finest work in years as the loving mom in “Ben Is Back”

“Ben Is Back” is a deceptively fitting 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.

Preparing to ready her little ones for a Christmas pageant and finish her holiday prep. Holly Burns (Roberts) receives an unexpected surprise at her upstate New York door in the form of 19-year-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 Ivy (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’s broken into the house and kidnapped their beloved dog. 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’s 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 definite Juliassance, and “Ben Is Back” is Roberts’ best film work since her Oscar-winning turn in 2000’s “Erin Brockovich.” As Holly goes from naïve parent to angry mother on a mission. The love never wavers for her struggling child as she faces all of her worst nightmares on one harrowing night.

And per usual, Hedges is outstanding in yet another awards-caliber film. (Someday this kid might just give an average performance, though probably not when his dad’s 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. That than the narratively similar “Beautiful Boy” in showing the effects of an addict on family members, particularly when it comes to the mental aspect 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. That is the needed bow on this holiday-ready presentation.

Suburban mother Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) cautiously welcomes her 19-year-son Ben (Lucas Hedges) home for the holidays. Why the hesitation?

The young man has gone AWOL from rehab. Mom may be mollified by her son’s vow to return to treatment the day after Christmas. But will he keep his promise? And even with 77 days of treatment behind him, can he stay clean until then?

That’s the premise that fires up Ben Is Back. That a drama from writer-director Peter Hedges (a.k.a. Lucas’s dad) about a mother and son dancing around the issue of trust over 24 hours of fraught tension. There’s both joy and a threat in its title: Addicts are notorious liars, and Ben has proved himself a master of the game.

“If he were black, he’d be in jail by now,” says Holly’s resentful. African-American second husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance), who’s been footing the bill for his stepson’s latest chance at redemption. Luckily, Holly sets up rules. The lad stays where she can see him or all bets are off. His sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) expects the worst. Though Holly’s two younger children with Neal respond freely to their fun brother.

Still everything seems initially sunny, if a little fraught — until some encounters in his old neighborhood begin to paint a chilling picture of the boy’s past and a hint of things to come.

At Christmas Eve mass, Holly encounters Beth (Rachel Bay Jones). The mother of a girl who overdosed after Ben got her hooked back in out-of-control junkie days. Returning home, the family find their house vandalized and their dog kidnapped. It’s not a random break-in. Someone is being sent a message by drug dealers higher up the food chain.

Finding a pet is an obvious plot contrivance to send Ben and his mother (she won’t let him search on his own). That on a wild ride through the night in which secrets are revealed and lives are threatened. Through it all, Roberts runs a gamut of emotions that remind us of what a powerful actress she is.

Her vital and touching teamwork with Hedges, who keeps getting more impressive with each role, is what makes the film work. The heart and soul they put into this familial story almost make the overly familiar addiction-drama beats beside the point. And thanks to them — and Hedges Sr., a director with an uncanny knack for finding the emotional core of a scene. Ben Is Back ends up becoming into a penetrating look at how addiction wrecks lives from both sides of the parent-child equation. It’s unflinching and unforgettable.

INFO:

Rating: R (for language throughout and some drug use)
Genre: Drama
Directed By: Peter Hedges
Stars: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance
Written By: Peter Hedges
In Theaters: Dec 7, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Feb 19, 2019
Runtime: 103 minutes
Studio: LD Entertainment/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR BEN IS BACK

Ella Kemp
The astonishing chemistry makes you wonder how long Julia Roberts had secretly been Lucas Hedges’ mother without telling anyone.

Paul Byrnes
Showy acting is popular, but I think Peter and Lucas Hedges…do their best work in the quieter moments, in which they take us deep inside a problem that has tragic consequences for so many people.

Adam Graham
“Ben is Back” is one of those awards season films that looks on paper to be a slam dunk: Mother and child relationship, drugs and drama is a cocktail for Oscar gold. In this case, the dunk is a dud.

Allison Rose
Hedges has been a star since his first role and he has had career-making performances in some of the best films of 2017 and 2018 alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest names.

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