Ben is Back is, first and foremost, a Christmas film. It's the best and the worst kind of Christmas film, the kind of Christmas film that gives you glimpses of the Christmas you've always dreamed of but puts it away in some cockeyed manger while immersing you in the kind of Christmas you've always had.
You know the one, right?
It's the kind of where you show up at the family gathering in a long-sleeve shirt hoping to hide the fresh track marks.
It's the kind of Christmas where Aunt Lulu's breath smells like Listerine because she thinks that'll hide the fifth of whiskey on her breath.
It's the kind of Christmas where Brittany shows up with a smile on her face, the latest bruises on her face masked by caked-on make-up and enough foundation to build another high-rise.
It's the kind of Christmas where you know these people, but you really don't and you're not sure you really want to.
Yeah, Ben is Back is a Christmas film.
In the film, Ben (Lucas Hedges) is back. The 19-year-old shows up unexpectedly at the family abode on Christmas Eve from his latest several month stint in some fancy schmantzy rehab center financed by Neal (Courtney B. Vance), his kinda stepfather and the wealthy husband of his loving but wary mother, Holly (Julia Roberts). Roberts's Holly is the kind of mother who never gives up on those she loves, because that's what mothers do. They never give up on those they love.
Sometimes, they probably should.
Ben, of course, swears that he's been doing so well he's been given a weekend pass.
Holly might deep down know better, but she wants to believe. She wants to believe precisely because we always want to believe in the people we love even when the people we love can't be believed.
Personally, I've found that to be quite often.
Holly is overjoyed to see him, but Roberts wears that familiar body language that anyone who's ever loved an addict wears. It's kind of like being welcomed with arms half open, an inner physical wall serving as a self-protection against what is known to be an inevitable hurt.
The hurt's gonna' happen. We never know how. We never know when. We just know.
Ben seems like a good guy, a sweetie really. It's easy to understand why Holly would choose to believe. It's easy to understand and even believe that Ben would happily saunter off with the family to their church's Christmas Eve service where his sister (Kathryn Newton), you know the good kid who always gets neglected when the bad kid shows up, will have a featured performance with the choir.
Much has been made of the fact that acclaimed writer/director Peter Hedges is directing his own son and increasingly acclaimed actor Lucas Hedges here. That's worth noting, I suppose, but it's also worth noting that they wisely avoid anything resembling over-sentimentality. If anything, Lucas Hedges wisely plays more toward that ever dominating presence known as Julia Roberts, embodying her no-nonsense, matter-of-factness with near repetition yet with an air of insincerity that makes us know rather quickly that he's trying to be something that he's not and he will likely never be.
There's something beneath Ben's facade, a something we will come to know as some variation of self-loathing or guilt or shame or all of the above. It's something Holly doesn't feel and likely has never experienced.
Ben is Back gives us both variations of Julia Roberts that we've come to know and love. There's Roberts, as Holly, opening the film with that 100-watt smile that both draws you in and distracts you, and there's Roberts, the Holllywood superstar not afraid to dress down, get dirty, and go deep within even the darkest of human emotions. Here, Roberts is raging and relentless in both her maternal instincts and her understandable yet unfathomable denial regarding the son she thinks she loves but maybe doesn't even really know. If this isn't Roberts's best performance yet, it's awfully close even when Hedges's script threatens to derail in the second half of the film.
Ben is Back does nearly derail, hindered by a precise character drama that becomes a credulity threatening crime thriller not too far removed from A Christmas Carol.
These are the ghosts of Ben's Christmases past and present and they are scary ghosts indeed.
Ben is Back is Roberts's film. While everything centers around Ben, Hedges wisely makes the film ultimately about Holly and her transformation into an older and wiser and more woke version of herself by film's end. It's a harrowing journey, not always a believable one but we believe in Holly's journey and that's a good part of what makes Ben is Back such an effective film.
While Ben is Back nearly derails, it never really derails. It feels, at times, a lot like the journey toward sobriety or healing or something resembling recovery. It's a film that dances on the edge of the cliff, looks over the cliff at the devastating chasm of jagged rocks below and pulls back. It's funny and dramatic, melodramatic and just plain unbelievable all wrapped into one. The unbelievable really kicks off when the quiet family drama becomes something more akin to a caper flick, our fiercely devoted mother-son combo off chasing through the streets of Ben's past in search of a kidnapped family dog taken by a person unfamiliar to Holly yet very familiar to Ben.
It seems absurd, really, to pin the hopes of an entire film on the quirky notion of kidnapped dog. Yet, that's exactly what Hedges does and the story that follows is gloriously brilliant in all its absurdity. Holly follows Ben everywhere, again because that's what mothers do or that's what mothers are supposed to do. These scenes, I'm not even sure I believed them, but I found myself drawn into the journey and into Holly's increasingly blind rage as she confronts and cajoles and refuses to give up on her son despite these things she's learning about her son that no mother should ever have to learn.
Ben is still her son.
If you've ever been through anything, especially some sort of childhood trauma, you want a mom like Holly who, even in her denial, will move mountains and rattle cages and love you back to life.
We all need someone who will find a way to love us back to life.
Peter Hedges doesn't attempt to explain things away. He doesn't make excuses for Ben's addiction nor does he attempt to explain away Holly's denial or her subsequent learning and embrace of harsh life truths.
He just believes. He believes in truth. He believes in commitment. He believes in unconditional love and the healing power of presence and bonds that can never be broken.
Amidst the beauty of its flaws, Ben is Back is a special film. It's a Christmas film, it really, really is. Yet, it's something more and that something more comes alive in scene after scene. It's a film carried by the powerful grace of Roberts's performance and the sensitive, disciplined nuances of Hedges' performance that is mature far beyond his years. The supporting performances are equally fine, especially those of Courtney B. Vance and Kathryn Newton.
I'm not sure I can say that you'll love Ben is Back, but I can say it's a journey you won't easily forget and it's a film that will resonate whether you're familiar with the recovery journey or not. This is both the best and the worst that a Christmas movie can be, simultaneously harsh in its reality and unwavering in its fierce, hard-earned optimism.
Ben is Back. It's not enough to just hope for it ... we have to be willing to fight for it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic