Movies about families struggling with substance abuse, like real life struggles, generally follow the same pattern. A family member gets involved with drugs (or alcohol or some other addiction) and then there is the horrified realization of how serious the problem is, hope, betrayal, hope, back-sliding, incalculable damage to other family members, anger, recriminations, tears, hope, more back-sliding, maybe some more hope. We saw that most recently in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the joint memoirs of a father and son. But writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,””What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) wisely takes a different approach in “Ben is Back,” starring his son, Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By the Sea,” “Boy Erased”).
As he explained to me in an interview, Hedges has always been fascinated by the story of Orpheus, who followed the woman he loved into Hades to try to save her. As the title tells us, this movie begins when Ben (Hedges) unexpectedly shows up at home just before Christmas. We learn everything that the typical substance abuse movie takes two hours to cover in the first few minutes, from the very different reactions of his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), who is overjoyed to see him and his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), who is furious and horrified. (Nice Christmas-y names, there, Holly and Ivy). And then we see that Holly may be happy to have Ben home, but she has not forgotten who he is — she immediately empties out the medicine cabinet and hides her jewelry.
He says he got permission from the residential rehab program. It is probably not true, but what can a mother do? She wants it to be true so badly. She wants him to be home and to want to be home. And it is Christmas. Holly’s husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the father of her two younger children, does not want Ben to be there. Holly persuades him to give Ben (another) chance.
And then, she must follow him into Hades. An incursion from Ben’s old life in the underworld of drug abuse means that Ben must visit many of his former contacts, and Holly insists on going with him. She may have thought she knew and had experienced the worst, that she knows how far she can go, how far she is willing to go, but she will learn that none of that is true.
Hedges, as always, approaches his characters with a deep, tenderhearted humanity. He is clear-eyed about the genuine villains in this story, including those who make and sell legal opiates, and he recognizes the mistakes even well-meaning, attentive, caring people make. He also understands how family dynamics curb and enable abuse, and how abuse distorts and damages everyone in the substance abuser’s orbit. But he has sympathy for addicts and their families, acknowledging their mistakes and their struggles but always wanting the best for them.
We go backwards through Ben’s life (and Holly’s), meeting people who used with him and people who used him. We see how he first got hooked, one of the movie’s most powerful moments as Holly confronts the now-pathetic culprit in a shopping mall food court. We see the collateral damage, the grieving mother, the near-destroyed friend. And, paraphrasing the words of the old public service ad, we know what it did to Ben, but does Holly know what it is doing to her?
Roberts, who has always been one of the most expressive of actors, gives one of her all-time best performances here. From the film’s very first moment, as she persuades her younger children to do something with a small, seemingly harmless bribe, we see how much of her energy and focus is on managing the world for the people she loves. As she and Ben are driving through their own version of Hades, she keeps assuring her family that everything is fine and that she and Ben will be home soon. It is as though she thinks that if she can only persuade everyone, she can will it into being. The skill of this movie is that while it is clear she cannot, we wish she could.
Parents should know that this movie includes themes of drug abuse, overdoses, rehab, drug dealing, sexual references, sad offscreen death, and very strong language.
Family discussion: How is this different from other stories of substance abuse? What do we learn from the scene in the food court? Why can’t Holly tell her family the truth?
If you like this, try: “Beautiful Boy” and “Flight”
Originally published at moviemom.com.