Ben Is Back is not obviously a movie star movie. There is no glamour to it. No action or scale or suggestion of much of a budget. But this is a movie star movie, because at its heart is Julia Roberts, the movie starriest of female movie stars and without her it would be a much lesser film. It needs her charisma and magnetism to elevate it above its melodramatic urges.
The Ben of the title, played by Lucas Hedges, is the wayward son of Roberts’ Holly, the sort of super-together mother whose kitchen looks like its only used for photo shoots and whose children are always spotlessly clean. Ben has been in rehab for the past four months for drug addiction. He should still be there but he’s decided he’s sufficiently recovered and shows up on his mother’s doorstep on Christmas Eve. Holly is ripped in two directions by his return. Half of her is terrified her son is going to rob them, hurt the rest of the family and fall back into addiction. The other half is giddy at having her boy back. She decides to give Ben one day at home, as long as he never leaves her sight.
Turns out that when Hedges and Roberts are paired you’ve absolutely no desire to leave them for any reason. The pair are exceptional together, their relationship jolting between affectionate, combative and despairing as they pick at the wounds left by Ben’s addiction and the things he did to feed it. Director Peter Hedges (father of Lucas) cleverly structures the film so brief moments are held back from us. We’re never sure whether to trust Ben – he tells Holly she must never trust anything he says because addicts are liars – because Hedges will take the camera away from him for mere seconds, in which he could have used, stolen or in some other way betrayed his mother’s trust. It keeps the film on constant edge.
Things edge over the top in the later stages, with bleak truths from Ben’s past piling up at such a rate that their impact softens, but even when it stretches credibility it always has Roberts to steady it. This is the heftiest role she’s had this decade and she is so powerfully great that it makes you hope the next decade will see her on screen a lot more.
Release Date: 15 March, 2019