Ben is Back
It starts conventionally and you have a fair idea of where the movie is headed when Ben (Lucas Hedges), a recovering drug addict, returns home following a period of detox. Having cleared the bathroom cabinet of pills, his doting mum (Julia Roberts) swears that she will not let him out of her sight for the time that he is there. Ben insists that he is clean (don’t they all?), but his younger sister (Kathryn Newton) and black stepfather (Courtney V Vance) are sceptical. When is Ben going to succumb to temptation? It’s the question that builds as the story progresses. The turning point comes when the family arrive back at the house in jolly mood after a nativity play at their local church, only to find a side door shattered and the Christmas tree strewn over the floor. A theft has been committed, but, given the circumstances, I didn’t quite buy it. Nevertheless, the plot needs the incident in order to set in train the gripping second half of the drama, which has Mum and Ben prowling the snowy streets and visiting Ben’s old haunts in search of what has been stolen. For a small town in this Rockwellesque America (is it the mid-West? New England?), there do seem to be an inordinate number of junkies at large, as well as stores and cafes open late on Christmas night, but as the screws are being turned these are acceptable oddities. Roberts, a great actress, gives a typically ‘true’ performance as a mother at her wits’ end – the scene in which she spitefully wishes a slow, painful death for the forgetful old doctor whom she believes is responsible for Ben’s habit, is shamelessly ugly. Hedges, last seen as a gay teenager struggling to cope with his sexuality in Boy Erased, is likewise convincing in portraying his character’s self-hatred, remorse, and urgent need to do good. The mother/son relationship, which is the film’s beating heart, is exhausting in its intensity but hopeful in its resolution. Outstanding.