In its early scenes, Ben Is Back is more unpredictable and slyly entertaining than its earnest-sounding premise might suggest. It’s Christmas Eve, and well-heeled suburban mom Holly (Julia Roberts) returns home to find her wayward and recovering-addict teenage son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), pacing shiftily in the driveway. Despite the protestations of Ben’s suspicious sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and stern stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), Holly is seduced by the possibility of a festive family reunion, and agrees to let Ben stay for the night, provided he immediately returns to rehab the following day.
While it’s not long before Ben’s cheerful façade begins to crack, writer-director Peter Hedges teasingly withholds details of his protagonist’s murky past, making it tricky to fathom how much of a threat the teen really poses to his family. In the capable hands of Lucas Hedges, the filmmaker’s son, Ben is equal parts thinly veiled despair and devilish charm, sympathetic but decidedly untrustworthy. Roberts deftly conveys Holly’s struggle to maintain composure as she lurches between giddy joy and paralyzing fear. And there’s a welcome dash of bittersweet humor to a sequence in which Holly shifts into matronly mode to extract a urine sample from her son.
But as the scope of the film widens, Peter Hedges begins to lose his grip on the material. A chance encounter in a mall between Holly and a former family doctor blandly reframes Ben as a pitiful victim, as it transpires that the boy became hooked on prescription painkillers following a snowboarding accident. And after a moment of palate-cleansing seasonal schmaltz in which Ben chokes back tears at a carol service while Ivy performs a stirring rendition of “O Holy Night,” the film takes a bizarre swerve into thriller terrain.
The family returns from church to find their home vandalized and their beloved dog missing. Ben and Holly thus embark on a reckless quest to hunt down the perpetrator, confronting shadowy figures from their past and their own demons in the process. What started out as a measured chamber drama devolves into a broad-strokes portrait of suburban America’s dark underbelly, as mother and son clash with sexual predators, grieving parents, and ruthless crime gangs. Revelations that might have been devastating delivered over the family dinner table seem outlandish relayed as the pair race hysterically across town in pursuit of their missing pooch.
Even as the film’s screenplay strains credulity, though, Roberts captivates as a mother coming to terms with the heavy cost of unconditional love, reckoning with the possibility that her worst nightmare may be about to come true. And Lucas Hedges is haunting as a young man hitting rock bottom, steadfast in his belief that he’s fucked up one too many times to warrant affection from the loved ones he’s betrayed so many times. As Ben Is Back hurtles toward its tense climax, you may find yourself both deeply resenting its narrative contrivances and passionately rooting for its protagonists.