It’s entirely forgivable if you’re confused by the muted, soundalike family dramas coming out this somber season. To the ranks of “Beautiful Boy” (Steve Carell and Timothée Chalemet as worried father and drug-addict son) and “Boy Erased” (Lucas Hedges as a teen sent to gay conversion camp by parents Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) is now added “Ben Is Back”: Hedges as a drug-addict son coming home to mom Julia Roberts for Christmas. All those B’s and boys and agonized intergenerational silences!
Of the three, the new film is the strongest, meaning it’s the rawest and most uncomfortable to sit through. Any movie on this subject that’s not uncomfortable isn’t really doing its job, and “Ben Is Back” puts an audience through a wringer of emotional and physical suspense. If you’ve dealt with addiction, personally or in your extended family, the movie should probably come with a trigger warning.
Where Ben (Hedges) is back from is a rehab facility, where he’s been doing well enough — he says — to have been given a holiday pass. An early scene establishes the tense vibe: The family returns noisily home from a church pageant rehearsal, sees Ben looming by the driveway, and the car comes to a jolting stop. They’ve been through this season with Ben before, and they know the only tidings he brings are bad ones.
Ben is a recovering monster whose worst days may finally be behind him, but no one can afford to believe that, including him. Hedges seems to have more of a character to bite into here than in “Boy Erased”; for what it’s worth, the actor is working from a script by the film’s director, Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,” “Dan in Real Life”), who’s also his father. For her part, Roberts gives one of her finer performances as the mother, Holly, a lifelong enabler who has learned the hardest way possible to fight her people-pleasing impulses.
But everyone looks at Ben like a human tripwire. His younger sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton, “Big Little Lies”), masks her worry with withering scorn and familial truth-telling, and only when Ben reaches out to her for support — when he’s sent to retrieve something from the attic where he knows he hid a stash months before — does she become a pillar of strength. (There’s a stepdad, well played by Courtney B. Vance, and two young step-siblings, but they’re secondary to the drama.)
“Ben Is Back” looks as though it might be a simmering living-room drama for its entire running time, but then an element of Ben’s past resurfaces in an ugly fashion, and he has to head into the darkness of Christmas Eve to make things right. The script begs an audience’s indulgence and probably over-indulgence when Holly doesn’t do what you or I might — which is call the police — but instead forcibly heads out alongside her son. If she did dial 911, of course, there’d be no movie, and one of the less obviousstrengths of the film is the way it shows us the despair and the wreckage, the criminality and the wasted youth, under the veneer of “safe” suburbia.
The movie says that Bedford Falls and Pottersville have become one and the same. A gaunt wraith emerges from an alley, says “Hi, Mrs. B.,” and Holly realizes with a start that the adult addict before her is a child she’s known since infancy. Some of Ben’s classmates haven’t made it to adulthood at all, and, without turning preachy, “Ben Is Back” testifies to an epidemic that cuts across this country’s fault-lines. (Well, the all-night pharmacist who hands out syringes but not Narcan is a bit of a convenient villain, but she’s also a deserving stand-in for a profit-hungry infrastructure just out of sight.)
The two central performances go far to papering over the movie’s increasing plot holes, and “Ben Is Back” ultimately becomes a two-hander about a man who’s resigned to hell and a mother who won’t let him go there. Both actors are more powerful the quieter they get, and Hedges especially seems to burn Ben slowly toward an awful purity — the user’s ability to see through every lie and evasion, whether it’s coming from the people who love him or from within his own brain.
This is Peter Hedges’s best movie by a long shot, and I was reminded, more than once, of an American version of Joachim Trier’s “Oslo, August 31st” (2012), which may be the hardest, most compassionate depiction of a recovering addict ever put on film. Lucas Hedges has the same clipped hair and demeanor here, the pitiless aversion to piety, and the guttering aloneness even in a crowd. “Ben Is Back” only adds trappings of movie-style suspense, which diminish the proceedings without turning them false, and it ends exactly when and where it should. It’s a worthy night at the movies, but you need the stomach for it.
BEN IS BACK
Written and directed by Peter Hedges. Starring Lucas Hedges, Julia Roberts, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 103 minutes. R (language throughout, some drug use).