For about three minutes at the start, Peter Hedges’s age-of-opioids melodrama Ben Is Back offers a sight that has for too long been absent from our screens. Here’s Julia Roberts beaming, aglow with her full radiance. This time that mile-wide smile is unfurled not for some romantic partner, but for her character’s children, a darling crew of mixed-race elementary-aged kids grinning their way through rehearsal at their church’s Christmas play. Roberts even offers a flash of her inviting wicked sparkle, that conspiratorial no-time-for-bullshit quality that has always made her Pretty Women and Runaway Brides and Best Friend’s Wedding-ruiners so easy to cheer on. The kids are getting antsy, so mom leans in for some frank talk: If they want to keep on only having to come to church once a year, they'd better settle down.
The scene is a delight. Soon after it, her movie star duties discharged, Roberts spends the next 100 minutes showing us everything else she can do — and what a shrewd and scrupulous actor she has become. She’s blazingly charismatic and in total command, while also always creating the illusion of naturalness. With the quickest blink or nervy glance, Roberts communicates to us both what her character, an ordinary woman named Holly Burns, has convinced everyone around her to think she’s feeling, but also all of her secret doubts, fury and anguish.
The story finds her Holly surprised just before Christmas by the arrival of Ben, her teenage son from her first marriage. Since he is played by Lucas Hedges, of Manchester by the Sea and Boy Erased, you would probably know straight away that smiling time is over, even if a strain of panic didn’t corrupt Holly’s hello to him. Ben is an addict, 77 days clean, out from his rehab clinic early by his own choice. He says it’s just because he wanted to be home for Christmas, but Holly, despite being overwhelmed with her love for him, has her doubts. Roberts reveals Holly’s prickly competing emotions: She suffers some guilt, as she expects it’s a stray remark of hers that inspired him to leave his treatment. And she’s defensive about what Neal (Courtney B. Vance), her second husband and the father of her youngest child, will make of Ben’s latest probable screwup. And she’s convinced, thanks to hard experience, that Ben will find a way to relapse. After some crisply staged scenes of family consultation, she strikes a tense deal with Ben. He can stay for one day, but he can’t leave her sight, not even for a second.
This melodrama’s superior first half has the aching texture of observed life, with mother and son locked in a complex battle of wills. Holly believes she can tough-love him through the day — that addiction can be conquered by extreme parenting. She searches his pockets, demands that he take a drug test and bangs furiously on the door when, on a shopping trip, he locks himself in a mall fitting room. Ben plays noisily with his half-siblings, but too noisily — an edge of anxious performance whets his attempts at everyday living. He is stung by his mother’s distrust, but he understands it; like Roberts, Hedges excels at a weaponized annoyance, at barking out a caustic truth and then making it clear that he’s swallowing back more where that came from. Writer-director Hedges, the actor’s father, has scraped away the mawkishness of his Dan in Real Life and The Odd Life of Timothy Green. He shows us glimpses of Ben’s secrets, the lies he’s telling his mother, but teases a potential relapse as a matter of suspense: Will he or won’t he? Does Ben urge his mother to take him to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting because he’s truly scared he’s going to use again, or because he hopes to cop a fix?
That might sound cheap, but the filmmakers and the cast capture the pained uncertainty of loving an addict. Soon, Holly’s hardass routine softens up as Ben reveals to her — with that same performative edge — just how much of a struggle it is to keep clean. But Ben seems to us to be emphasizing how hard he’s trying so that he can eventually steal a moment away from her, possibly to get high.
The leads dance between doubt and trust, love and guilt, honesty and a self-serving simulation of the same. One of their finest scenes comes late, after the plot kicks in and a crisis compels mom and son out into the night and the underworld of small-town opiate addiction. Ben attempts to chase her away, either to spare her from danger or to score a fix, or both. To do so, he goes all in on a technique that will be familiar to many who have loved or cared for addicts in real life. He insists he’s not worth her time, that he’s a terrible person, that she would let go of him if she really knew him.
Roberts deftly underplays Holly’s refusal, going quiet, almost catatonic, where other actors might chomp scenery. Her Holly doesn’t have an Oscar-night speech to offer, just her core of stubborn love. “It’s not working,” she says, more to herself than him. It’s as if he’s working some mesmeric trick that at long last has lost its power, but she could also be talking about her own efforts at steering him right. Ben Is Back’s pained heart is a flinty, confident Julia Roberts character realizing at last that there are some problems she can’t conquer.
The film loses some of its intensity in the repetitive back half, as mom and son spend a lot of time driving around and approaching creepy houses and businesses. The characters they meet increasingly resemble people in movies rather than in the world, a fault that starts early. Everyone seems crafted to make points about things, to expose Holly’s naiveté or to give her the opportunity to go off on doctors’ over-prescribing of opiates. And the climax seems inevitable not because it’s where these characters are necessarily headed, but because it’s a knockout showcase scene for one of Hollywood’s most popular actresses. She aces it, and I certainly got misty, but I found Ben Is Back more moving an hour before, when it was less ostentatiously a movie.