“Ben Is Back” is a deceptively fitting entry in the holiday movie season, one that combines the nation’s opioid crisis, a tweaked Christmas movie template, and the gift that keeps on giving, Julia Roberts.
The A-lister teams with 21-year-old Lucas Hedges (previously Oscar-nominated for “Manchester by the Sea”) for the story of a loving mom who has her eyes opened to just how bad her drug-addicted son’s situation is on Christmas Eve. Writer/director Peter Hedges (aka Lucas’ father) crafts a tightly packed tale (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities through December) that starts like emotional gangbusters, loses its way a bit, yet finds a way home balancing gut-wrenching episodes and hopeful feelings.
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Preparing to ready her little ones for a Christmas pageant and finish her holiday prep, Holly Burns (Roberts) receives an unexpected surprise at her upstate New York door in the form of 19-year-son Ben (Lucas Hedges), who’s supposed to be in rehab. He tells Holly and his stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) that he’s on a 24-hour leave, though the festive season hasn’t always been the best in keeping Ben sober.
While Neal and Ben’s sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) are concerned about his being there – especially around two younger children – Holly lacks any sort of reticence. She’s simply glad to have her boy back for Christmas, taking him clothes shopping, escorting him to an AA meeting and doing whatever she can. Unfortunately, the family’s return home from the pageant is met with disaster: Someone’s broken into the house and kidnapped their beloved dog, and Ben suspects one of his old drug buddies.
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