Published Dec 13, 2018When Holly (Julia Roberts) pulls up to her house, a nervous young man is standing in the snowy front yard. She leaps out of the car and runs over to hug him, while her daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton), starts texting and making panicked calls.
The man is her son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), unexpectedly home for the holidays from his drug treatment program. Clean and sober for only 77 days, Ben must navigate triggers and temptations that make getting to his 78th feel nearly impossible.
Following the family over the course of 24 hours around Christmas Eve, Ben Is Back is far from your typical feel-good holiday film. At its core, however, it's about Holly's unending love for her son and her desire to keep him alive. This is true even when it puts strain on her relationship with her daughter and Ben's stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance), as she begins lying to them in order to protect Ben.
Partially a testament to Roberts' performance as the desperate, conflicted mother, the film manages the difficult task of getting the viewer to root for Ben, while simultaneously share in his family's uncertainty as to whether or not they're able to believe him. It leans into the emotional turmoil of how Ben's actions have hurt those around him, and there is sense that an impending relapse or overdose could be the last of his second chances.
But by rooting the story in a comfortable suburban family, it's also clear that Ben has had a certain safety net. Writer and director Peter Hedges creates a portrayal of navigating addiction as impossibly difficult, yes, but also, for this family at least, as something resembling manageable.