A church choir harmonizes “In the Bleak Midwinter” over the opening frames of Ben Is Back, setting a most appropriate tone for a film that’s hardly meant to spread holiday cheer.
This uneven yet heartfelt glimpse into the psychology of teenage drug addiction benefits from strong performances and a worthwhile message of parental love.
The story is set in the snowy suburbs, where Ben (Lucas Hedges) shows up unannounced to celebrate 24 hours over Christmas with his family after spending time in a drug rehab facility. His mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), is ecstatic, although quietly apprehensive — scrambling to remove temptations that might cause Ben to relapse in his delicate state.
As Ben tries to reconnect with his younger siblings, his stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) is skeptical. Holly promises to watch him constantly to make sure he stays out of trouble.
That’s not enough, as it turns out, as Ben’s past catches up to him almost immediately, both before and after an impromptu emergency group therapy session. The film gradually fills in the contextual gaps by hinting how things got to this point, although it becomes manipulative in the final act, when Ben and Holly become separated under dire circumstances.
Despite some melodramatic contrivances, the screenplay by director Peter Hedges (Dan in Real Life), whose real-life son plays the title role, manages some intriguing character dynamics as it explores fractured families and the harrowing uncertainty that faces recovering addicts.
Everyone in Ben’s family is concealing their true emotions, to a certain extent. Just as their trust for him is fragile, so is the threshold for sympathy among moviegoers. Deep down, we root for Ben and his family against the odds, which makes their attempted reconciliation more unsettling.
It covers similar territory as the recent Beautiful Boy, which was based on true events, unlike this film. But both tell their stories primarily from the perspective of beleaguered parents. Roberts is superb here, effectively channeling a range of emotions including anger, fear, resentment, guilt, and ultimately hope.
The film awkwardly transitions into a cat-and-mouse thriller about a mother searching for her missing child that lacks the authenticity of its first half. But as Holly’s journey grows darker, do we applaud her determination or admonish her foolishness? Appropriately, the film doesn’t provide a tidy answer.