“Ben Is Back” deals with many of the issues that made “Beautiful Boy,” which came out earlier this year, so touching. A promising young son starts using drugs, becomes an addict and ends up in rehab, only to face many challenges when he comes back home.
But “Ben Is Back” differs somewhat from “Beautiful Boy.” First, it has the great young actor Lucas Hedges giving a subtle, nuanced performance as Ben, the son of Holly (Julia Roberts), who shows up unexpectedly for family celebrations on Christmas Eve.
“Beautiful Boy,” featuring the exceptional Timothee Chalamet, takes place over years, with multiple visits to rehab and multiple relapses, much to the dismay of his father, played by Steve Carell.
While viewers might feel a bit of fatigue watching the prolonged misery of “Beautiful Boy,” they’ll discover that “Ben Is Back” is much more action-packed.
For the first hour, Ben and Holly and the rest of the family, including the stepfather played by Courtney B. Vance, do a delicate dance of wariness. Holly says Ben can stay for Christmas — for one day — only if he takes a urine/drug test and only if he agrees to stay in her sight for the entire visit.
He agrees, and the dance begins. But everyone trips when they go out for church services and come back to find out that Ben’s criminal past has arrived at their doorstep.
Unlike “Beautiful Boy,” the rest of “Ben Is Back” becomes something of a chase movie, with Holly and Ben weaving their way through sleazy pawn shops and gritty neighborhoods.
As Holly, Roberts gives a performance that’s full of love, guilt, empathy and anger. It’s hard to fault her, but it’s also hard to fathom what she’s facing. She loves her son, but she’s being dragged down with him. And this is not her normal milieu.
But the star of the film is Hedges, who seems hurt and ashamed and worried that he’s going to fall back into his old ways. His performance isn’t nearly as showy as that of Chalamet in “Beautiful Boy,” but it has depth and humanity.
Hedges can thank the writer/director for knowing his strengths. That would be Peter Hedges, the actor’s father, who wrote the Texas-filmed “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”
As the centerpiece film of the Austin Film Festival, “Ben Is Back” played to a packed audience at the Paramount Theatre and featured an appearance by Peter Hedges. He called his son his “favorite actor.” And if you see this movie, you’ll understand why.
Lucas Hedges has already been nominated for an Oscar for “Manchester by the Sea.” He’ll be nominated for many more. You can also see him in this year’s “Boy Erased.”