At one point in Ben is Back, the titular Ben (Lucas Hedges) is being uncharacteristically helpful with chores, loading up a wheelbarrow full of firewood for his sister Ivy to take to the house. He is a recovering drug addict, and gets caught up in explaining his rehabilitation process as focusing on each moment, each piece of wood, at a time. But he doesn’t notice that while he’s talking, he puts way too much firewood in the wheelbarrow, and it’s too heavy for Ivy to push.
In this way, Ben is Back leaves to the side the immense struggle of long-term recovery from drug addiction, and focuses instead on the almost equally insurmountable challenge of getting through the day, just one single day. It takes place over the period of Christmas Eve early afternoon into Christmas morning, but even so the events of the film are exhausting, and what’s worse is that there is every indication that this is not even a particularly unusual day for this family. Ben is Back intuits that the real struggle of drug addiction is not the five year plan or the ten year plan, but rather making it to the end of the day.
Even the title of the film is foreboding and reflects the anxiety of Ben’s family at having him present in their lives again. Throughout the film we purposefully get only sketchy details of what things were like when Ben was living with them and actively using drugs, his unbelievably destructive behavior, but we learn more from the reactions on the faces of each family member when Ben turns up than from anything else in the film.
His sister Ivy is immediately apprehensive — she remembers his actions more than anyone else, in the way that siblings know things that parents never seem to find out, and is unwilling to allow herself to be hurt again. His stepfather is all tough love and no-nonsense ultimatums. But Ben’s mother, played by Julia Roberts — is a bundle of contradictions. She too knows what Ben has put their family through, knows that it probably isn’t a good idea to have him home so early, knows that allowing him to stay will likely cause conflict between her and her husband. But she’s his mother. So she hugs him, and decides to figure out the rest later.
Ben is Back takes a major tonal shift entering into the third act as it goes from intimate family drama to dog-napping thriller, and though it hurts the flow of the film a bit, ultimately it all works. Ben being forced to revisit the ghosts of his past seems particularly apt for a movie set at Christmas, and allows both the audience and Ben’s mother insight into his unstable and frequently disturbing life before rehab. Hedges is in particularly good form in these scenes, his self-loathing and deeply held belief that he is beyond hope in sad contrast to his mother’s unceasing but potentially misplaced optimism.
The film doesn’t pull any punches in exploring the darkest motives and most unforgivable actions of a drug addict. The film isn’t visually explicit, but allows this ugliness to simmer just below the surface, always one mistake away from reemerging. Ben repeatedly warns his mother that she shouldn’t trust a word out of his mouth, and she would probably do well to listen to him. He’s a charismatic kid, and his charm is weaponized into manipulation when he’s using. But she can’t help but see the best in him, even when the warning signs are staring her in the face.
Ben is Back takes a nuanced approach to the issues surrounding drug addiction, both from the perspective of the addict but also from the people his decisions most severely affect. It features strong performances from Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, who have an incredible on screen bond as mother and son, and has enough of an emotional impact to keep audiences engaged even after the film changes gears drastically going into the third act.