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Julia Roberts Triumphs in 'Ben Is Back'

America's favorite actress hits a career high in a gritty family addiction thriller

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 43 minutes

Stars: Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton, Julia Roberts, Courtney B. Vance 

Director: Peter Hedges

In her best film performance of this century, Julia Roberts, 51, is a mom celebrating a cheery Christmas in New York's suburban Westchester County with her luminous daughter (Kathryn Newton from Big Little Lies) and kindly, wealthy husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance, 58). Christmas must be important to her, because she’s named Holly and she named her daughter Ivy, as in the old English carol “The Holly and the Ivy.” One line goes, “The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,” a reference to Christ’s crown of thorns, and for Holly’s family, the crowning torture is the opioid addiction of Ivy’s brother, Ben (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea’s breakout Oscar nominee and star of 2018’s Boy Erased).

So when Ben shows up unexpectedly in the driveway Christmas Eve, 77 days sober and struggling to stay that way for his 24-hour leave from rehab, Holly has contradictory emotions. Ben seems OK, but he’s dashed everyone’s hopes before. Ivy and his skeptical stepdad Neal — who footed the bill for rehab — both shoot him ice-dagger looks. Julia Roberts radiates maternal concern like a sun darkened by stormy sunspots of doubt about his sobriety, and after reassuring her, her son is candid enough to warn her, “Don’t believe me.” His shifting motives make for good drama. She can’t let him out of her fiercely protective sight — did he stash drugs someplace before rehab? — and she seesaws between elation at seeing him apparently healthy, and terror that he’s not.

Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges in Ben is Back

Mark Schafer; LD Ent./Roadside Attractions

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges are a mother and son trying to reconnect after his battles with addiction.

They go to church, where choir member Ivy sings holiday songs so sweetly you could cry. But the warm bath of emotion turns to cold shock. Ben’s old drug boss has vandalized their cozy home, kidnapped the family dog and prepared an ultimatum for him. Holly and Ben jump into the car for a wild-pooch chase to retrieve it. This is just a screenwriter’s excuse to introduce us to bad guys and fill us in on Ben’s nasty past, and America’s social problem. “I used there, I robbed someone there,” he tells Holly as they drive the snowy mean streets on the wrong side of the town, and they run into his old drug cronies and families harmed by his drug dealing. Ben attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, revealing more sordid backstory.

It’s all far more implausible than the pre-chase family scenes, but top-notch acting and heartfelt directing (by Lucas Hedges’ dad Peter Hedges, who made the Thanksgiving holiday classic Pieces of April) make the relationships utterly convincing, so you go along for the wild, scary ride. Scenes that might have faltered in lesser hands land with powerful impact. When Holly recognizes one drug-world denizen as Ben’s childhood playmate and says, “I used to change your diapers,” we buy her line and the kid’s furtive guilt. When a pharmacist refuses to sell Holly the opioid overdose-reversing nasal spray Narcan because the state doesn’t want to encourage irresponsible behavior, we know it’s the filmmaker’s too-on-the-nose statement of a political issue, but her sheer, righteous maternal fury makes the scene blaze. It’s not as well-written as Roberts’ quintuple Oscar-nominated environmentalist message movie Erin Brockovich (2000), but it’s got a similar flavor, and she knocks it out of the park.

For Roberts, turning 50 was an excellent career move. Last year, she gave us the superb tearjerker Wonder, and this year, both Ben Is Back and the innovative podcast-turned-TV mystery series Homecoming. She was good as a young pretty woman, but now she’s something more interesting: a grownup with a great career ahead of her.

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