There’s a reason Julia Roberts is a star.
She may have only made a dozen movies in the last 10 years and one of those may have been Mother’s Day, but when she has a meaty role, you can’t repress that irresistible star quality.
In Ben is Back she plays Holly, the mother of a drug-addicted son in a small American town, representing the hundreds of thousands of parents suffering through the same problem — increasingly, these crucial stories are being told on screen, here and in last year’s Beautiful Boy.
It’s a powerful, empathetic and multilayered performance as she wavers between strength and doubt, driven to the unthinkable.
Despite the movie’s heavy themes, it’s Roberts’ performance that carries it through; you can’t take your eyes off her — and Lucas Hedges’ more low-key energy is a great balance for Roberts.
There is a scene when Holly is seeking information from a homeless addict, a childhood friend of her son’s, which captures how great Roberts is in this role.
She desperately needs his co-operation and she has what he wants but doesn’t need, swirled in with the fact that she was a friend of his mother’s and she changed his nappies as a baby. That moral conflict is written all over her face and it’s heartbreaking.
The opioid crisis, often stemmed from prescription painkillers, is a scourge through the US, not just in urban centres, but also in suburbs with tree-lined streets and picket fences.
The Burnses is one of those families — comfortably middle-class with four kids, they go to church once a year and have a stylishly decorated Christmas tree. In other words, they’re relatable.
The oldest child, Ben (Hedges), unexpectedly turns up in the driveway of the family home on Christmas Eve. Holly is ecstatic to see him but his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is immediately suspicious.
Ben is supposed to be in rehab but he says his sponsor gave him leave to spend Christmas with his family. Despite Holly’s joy at having her son back, even if for the day, she also springs into action.
She gathers up and hides all the jewellery and drugs in the house, and Ivy is tasked with watching him like a hawk. In that moment, it’s clear this is a family that has been through all of it before — the betrayals of trust and the disappointments.
They strike a deal — Ben can stay for one day and Holly will spend every waking and sleeping moment with him.
Even Holly doesn’t really believe her own words, “this time will be different, you’ll see”.
When something happens that night, Holly’s eyes are opened to the depths of Ben’s addiction and the extent of what he had hidden from his family. Her horror is our horror.
Ben is Back, written and directed by Peter Hedges (Dan in Real Life), is a stark portrait of America’s drug crisis, as it takes us through various aspects that contribute to it.
Not just the scary drug dealer operating out of a pawn shop or the sad souls in camps, driven to despair by their disease, but also the main street chemists and the doctors that overprescribe.
And at the core of it are the people whose lives are dramatically up-ended. Holly mourns not just for the life Ben can never have now, she’s also pre-emptively mourning the idea that his addiction may take him.
But for all that, Ben is Back is a fairly rote drama — it ticks the boxes and it occasionally veers into over-sentimentality. Roberts is what makes it stand out.