The premise behind Ben Is Back is deceptively simple. A young man, Ben (Lucas Hedges), decides to visit his family for Christmas.
His mother Holly (Julia Roberts) is overjoyed. His younger siblings, Lacey (Mia Fowler) and Liam (Jakari Fraser) are delighted. His teenage sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is dismayed.
The family’s joy at seeing Ben is tempered by his mother’s next reaction, gathering all medications from the bathroom cabinet and collecting her jewellery, then hiding them.
Ivy’s reaction is to text their father Neal (Courtney B. Vance) and implore him to return home immediately.
Ben’s Christmas visit and his family’s reaction signal that things are not well.
It becomes clear that Ben’s unexpected visit is a harbinger of disruption to the family’s day to day life.
Ben is a recovering drug addict.
Due to his connections with drug dealers and other addicts and his history of drug dealing and drug taking, Ben’s visit not only causes tensions within the family but attracts the attention of people he considers undesirable and dangerous.
The film’s straightforward title belies the depth of emotion inherent in any film that tackles such a topic.
Ben immediately acknowledges that returning to his home and friends, both those who are supportive of his efforts to stay clean as well as the drug takers who entice him to reconnect with them, is problematic.
He tells Holly not to trust addicts and dealers. They all lie. She hears what Ben is saying but camouflages her view of Ben’s addiction and the drug triggers that surround him, which causes her to misjudge what is happening.
This ends up in a lengthy portion of the film dealing with Holly’s attempts to find Ben when he re-enters the drug scene to recover Ponce, the family dog.
Ben Is Back calmly handles Ben’s drug addiction and Holly’s unconditional desire to help her son deal with his addiction, even when Holly is shouting and crying.
These intense moments of emotional expression capture the impact of drugs on Ben’s life, and his desire to overcome the addiction and its effect on the people he loves.
The film doesn’t shield the audience from the grim reality of addiction and strips away the veneer of a respectable community to reveal the unpalatable reality of Ben’s life.
Ben Is Back Is highlights significant issues surrounding drug addiction, but conventional in the way it structures the story.
It has the feel of a made-for-television film. It’s only Julia Roberts’ and Lucas Hedges’ performances that lift it above the ordinary.