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D: Peter Hedges / 103m

Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Alexandra Park, Michael Esper, Tim Guinee, Myra Lucretia Taylor

Arriving home on Xmas Eve, Holly Burns-Beeby (Roberts) is surprised to find her teenage son, Ben (Hedges), waiting on the doorstep. She’s surprised because Ben is supposed to be in rehab and not allowed home yet. Nearly three months clean, Ben tells Holly – and his younger sister, Ivy (Newton) – that his sponsor thought it would be a good idea to spend Xmas at home. Ivy isn’t convinced, and nor his her stepfather, Neal (Vance), when he comes home. A deal is struck: Ben can stay for twenty-four hours, but he has to abide to Holly’s rules, which mainly involve being in her sight at all times, and no shutting of doors in the house. Ben soon chafes against these rules, and a trip to the mall to get his much younger step-siblings presents results in his needing to attend a meeting. There, and with Holly present, Ben reveals some of the pain he’s caused his family (and himself), and meets a young woman, Cara (Park), who he used to deal to. Back at the mall, it’s then that Holly disovers Ben has drugs on him, and her faith in him takes the first of several blows that occur throughout the rest of the night…

An austere and sobering movie, Ben Is Back is writer/director Peter Hedges’ fourth feature, and a far cry from the magical realism of his last movie, The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012). But it’s also unapologetically blunt about the way it treats drug addiction, and the way in which Holly clings to the desperate hope that her son will conquer his demons. Early on we learn that there have been previous Xmases where having a drug addict in the family hasn’t worked out so well, and it’s easy to understand Neal and Ivy’s concerns; you know from Ben’s unexpected arrival that there’s going to be trouble ahead. But Holly doesn’t (want to) see it. She has to believe everything will be alright. She misses her son too much, and though she has to police him, for her it’s a small price to pay. And no matter how many times in the course of the ensuing twenty-four hours her confidence in him is proven to be unfounded, still her love for her son, her firstborn, keeps her going; she just will not give up on him. Roberts is simply mesmerising as Holly, every hopeful smile tinged with a sadness borne of previous experience (never has Roberts mega-watt smile been used to such moving effect).

Roberts is matched by Hedges fils, the young actor’s performance a mix of guilt and self-loathing that anchors the character as a lost soul who knows his future better than his mother would like. Time and time again he warns her not to trust an addict, and time and again she refuses to believe him because he’s her son; Hedges takes this naïvete and uses it to make the pain Ben is feeling all the more acute. The movie becomes a two-hander as Ben’s recent past comes back to haunt him and he and Holly deal with the consequences of a home invasion that is the one aspect of the plot that Hedges père fumbles. With the pair trying to track down the whereabouts of a drug dealer (Esper), and eventually being separated, Ben has to try and stay focused enough to reward his mother’s faith in him, while all Holly can do is hope that her belief in him is enough to influence his actions. Hedges keeps the viewer guessing as to the outcome, and is confident enough in his screenplay to offer an ending that combines pessimism and continued hope to poignant effect, but it’s the way in which he paints a bleak yet compelling portrait of Ben’s struggles and Holly’s obstinate positivity, and how they clatter against each other, that rewards the most.

Rating: 8/10 – the secondary characters are given short shrift, and there are a couple of moments of uneasy foreshadowing, but on the whole Ben Is Back is a gripping, salutary lesson in how a family dynamic can be twisted out of shape thanks to one member becoming an outsider; there are no easy answers on offer, and Hedges keeps the tone downbeat and sombre throughout, making this a movie that wears its tattered heart on its sleeve, and which makes much more of an emotional impact than is bargained for.