It’s Christmastime in a small bedroom New York community. The church Christmas concert is looming and Holly and Neal Burns (Roberts and Courtney B. Vance) and their kids teenager Ivy (Kathryn Newton), little ones Lacey and Liam (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser) are rehearsed and ready. They arrive home after church to a surprise, Holly’s oldest son Ben (Hedges), sitting on the front step, on leave from his Sober Living house in the city. “I thought there was no way my counsellor would go for this,” he says, “but he did. That’s how good I’m doing.” Despite having left a trail of scorched earth behind him he looks good. Sober for seventy-seven days—“I just want to get to 78.”—he’s up a few pounds, has colour in his face and talks about living his life with “rigorous honesty.”
Still, Holly hides all the medication and jewellery in the house. Neal is welcoming but reticent. Ben’s drug taking has ruined several Christmases and the last time he was home he was found strung out, overdosed on the stairs with a needle in his arm. “I’m confused,” Neal says. “Everyone knows it’s in your best interest not to be home yet. There are too many triggers here for you.”
The town certainly has a lot of ghosts for Ben. Hooked on painkillers after a routine accident as a kid, he became a small time drug dealer and user, a teen who may or may not have been responsible for the OD death of his school friend Maggie. But Ben insists all is well, he does a drug test for his mom and attends the Christmas Eve concert with the family.
The past catches up with Ben and the family when they come home to find the house trashed and their beloved dog stolen. “This can’t be happening,” Ivy says. “Not again.” Ben isn’t sure who is responsible—“There were so many people it could be,” he says.—but is determined to find out. “You’re all still scared of me,” he says. “That’s the last thing I want to make you feel.” With Holly he confronts his past, journeying into the dark underbelly of his former suburban town to find the dog and test the bond of mother and son.
“Ben is Back” works best as a family drama of how addiction impacts loved ones. Cute though the dog may be, it works less so when it introduces the hunt for the lost canine. The dramatic tension is kept alive and well by carefully calibrated performances from Roberts and Hedges.
As Holly, Roberts moves away from the persona she has spent a career crafting. On the surface Holly is precise, a suburban soccer mom who will only buy organic cranberries and who changes the Christmas ornaments because the old ones, Ivy says, “didn’t fit the current aesthetic.“ Underneath though is a woman teetering on the edge, someone who believes in Ben despite having been disappointed so many times in the past. “This time will be different,” she says. “You’ll see.” It’s co-dependency and a mother’s unconditional love wrapped up in one complicated package.
Hedges is a roiling mix of self loathing—“ If you really knew me you’d be done with me.”—and hope. He’s a dark soul, tormented by what he has done and still vulnerable to falling back into the life that haunts him. Ben is revealed slowly and perhaps his most telling statement, the line that makes us question everything that has happened, comes late in the movie. “You can’t trust addicts,” he says to Holly. “All they do is lie.”
“Ben is Back” paints a compelling picture of addiction but is almost undone by a silly plot twist that threatens to turn the movie into a thriller, diluting its effectiveness. Luckily strong work from Roberts, Hedges and Newton keep it grounded.