Ben Is Back REVIEW: Julia Roberts just about saves an uneven addiction drama

Ben Is Back REVIEW: Julia Roberts just about saves an uneven addiction drama

The family drama - which plays out over one day - sees the titular Ben (Lucas Hedges), a recovering addict, returning home on Christmas Eve after a

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The family drama – which plays out over one day – sees the titular Ben (Lucas Hedges), a recovering addict, returning home on Christmas Eve after a few months in rehab. He’s not supposed to be out yet – so while mother Holly (Julia Roberts) is overwhelmed to see him, you can virtually feel sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and step-father Neal (Courtney B Vance) clench in fear at what might lie ahead, given the nastiness that ensued last time he was around. Ben admits the visit was a bad idea and offers to stay away until the time is right; but Holly strikes a compromise – he can stay for Christmas, and Christmas only, provided he never at any point leaves her sight. As soon as that day is up, it’s straight back to rehab until further notice.

What follows for much of the first hour is a fraught afternoon masked by smiles and everything’s-fine-here optimism, as Ben reconnects with his youngest step-siblings and is accompanied by his mother to the mall.

But later that night, when the family returns home from a Christmas Eve concert to find their house ransacked and their beloved dog missing (the dog that saved Ben’s life a year earlier), Ben knows someone is targeting him specifically. 

Overwhelmed by guilt over the drama he inflicted on his innocent family, he runs into the night to find and confront whoever took the pooch, and bring it home in time for Christmas morning. Holly, who promised to never leave his side, is soon on his tail – and fights to convince him to let her tag along.

Roberts is often the best, or one of the best, things about any film she’s in – and Ben Is Back is no different.

As Holly, she’s completely convincing as a mother who wants so desperately to have the perfect day with her child, but is consistently on edge over the knowledge that something, anything, could go wrong.

She knows Ben inside out: she knows he’s an addict, and she knows that no matter how lovely and heartfelt their reunion may be, she can’t afford to let her guard down.

It’s that very character trait that makes a couple of moments a little hard to swallow: for example in the final act when Ben manages to shake her off at a convenience store, bolting as soon as her back is turned, it’s a frustrating (and thunderingly obvious) beat that audiences will see coming a mile off.

In fact, it’s that whole final stretch of the film that really lets it down. While the tense family dynamics are promisingly established from the outset, as soon as Ben and Holly venture out into the Christmas night in pursuit of the dog, things stray more into thriller territory – and it doesn’t quite work.

The issue perhaps is that much of the tension around Ben seeking out past nemeses is played off-screen – with the camera sticking largely on Holly; being told to wait outside, or kept out of the loop on the finer details of Ben’s grudges.

While Roberts’ performance ensures our stomachs are doing as many somersaults as Holly’s, when it comes down to the climax and the inevitable question over whether Ben can get through the night in one piece, it’s a little harder to invest. We haven’t seen enough of his struggle; we haven’t got to know him enough to really be on the edge of our seats when it matters most.

The result is a well-performed movie that – come the end credits – leaves you with more a feeling of, ‘oh, OK then’ than anything else.

Ben Is Back is out now.

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