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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: "Ben is Back" a triumph for Julia Roberts

Dec 21, 2018 12:51PM ● By Dan Metcalf

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges in Ben Is Back - © 2018 Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate

Ben Is Back (Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate)

Rated R for language throughout and some drug use.

Starring Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton, Alexandra Park, Courtney B. Vance, Rachel Bay Jones, Michael Esper, David Zaldivar, Jakari Fraser, and Mia Fowler.

Written and Directed by Peter Hedges.



Addiction is real, and it affects everyone, no matter the social status, race, or gender. No film makes this reality more succinct than Ben is Back, a new film by Peter Hedges starring Julia Roberts and Peter’s son Lucas.

The details of the story are fairly simple. Ben (Lucas Hedges) is a recovering opioid addict who is supposed to be in rehab but suddenly shows up at his family’s home in upstate New York just before Christmas. Ben’s mother Holly (Roberts) is ecstatic to see her son, but her husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) who is Ben’s stepfather is more than a little concerned, especially for the safety of Ben’s sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and the couple’s other two young children Lacey and Liam (Jakari Fraser and Mia Fowler). Despite the joy of having Ben back, Holly immediately transitions into safety mode, hiding all prescription drugs, valuables or anything else an addict might find useful. Ben understands the concern but can’t hide how much it hurts to not be trusted. Things turn for the worst during a visit to the local mall for some last-minute Christmas shopping, where Ben runs into his former dealer and gets into a heated argument with Holly over safety protocols inside a clothing store changing room. Holly also runs into the elderly doctor who first prescribed opioids to Ben, now suffering from memory loss, giving him a brutal piece of her mind about how things turned out. After attending a Christmas Eve pageant at their local church, the family returns home to find there’s been a break-in, and their dog is missing. Ben as a few ideas as to who is responsible, so he and Holly set out on a Christmas Eve quest to find the dognappers. Their inquiries lead them to some of the seedier parts of town, where Holly learns more about how low Ben has been. Ben eventually discovers who has the dog and separates from Holly to face a local drug boss. Holly goes on a frantic search for Ben, who is engaged in some dangerous activities, not the least of which is the opportunity to take lethal doses of drugs. By Christmas morning, Holly is in a desperate race to find and save Ben from certain death.

Ben is Back is an honest and authentic snapshot of how addiction and opioid abuse affects families. These intense emotions and the pain associated with this crisis are beautifully and powerfully executed by Julia Roberts in the best performance of her career. She is able to show the rapture of hope for recovery, the fear of remission and the desperation of trying to save someone whose brain has been forever rewired by addiction. To me, this is the first role Roberts has taken where her celebrity has taken a back seat to talent, which she surely has. It isn’t showing off; it’s an actor stripped of pretense, behaving exactly as a mother would in similar situations. Lucas Hedges is also brilliant, skillfully playing an addict that looks like the “boy next door” who is hiding something dark and pervasive.

There is very little melodrama in Ben is Back. Peter Hedges hits all the right notes, with a measured subtlety that drives home some harsh realities regarding this epidemic of abuse and addiction, avoiding the temptation to preach.  

Ben is Back one of the best films of the year, and even though it might be hard to watch for those who have seen this crisis up close, it’s a movie worth seeing, and might provide a little insight for those who don’t understand the inescapable effects of the opioid crisis. 

Ben is Back Trailer