Review: Ben is Back


The film begins on a cold, quiet New England road with bare tree branches and old grave markers. Soon we see a stone church, St. John’s Episcopal (est. 1894), in lightly falling snow. Backdropped by a gorgeous stained-glass window of St. John the Beloved seemingly blessing her, we see Holly (Julia Roberts) sitting in a pew proudly watching her teenaged daughter practicing in the youth choir for that night’s Christmas Eve service. Holly is quickly surrounded by her two youngest children. This cozy quartet of love leaves the church singing in the car as they head for home.

At the same time, we hear the harsh sound of crackling grass as a young man, vaping pot from a stick in his mouth, desperately tries to enter Holly’s rural New England home. Like the fresh green grass frozen under the ice and snow, there is another America under the trappings of the Gothic church, children’s choir and Christmas decorations.

Holly (Roberts) turns into the driveway and is stunned. The youth stranded outside her home is Ben, her first-born. He is somehow out of his rehab clinic and home for Christmas. The frozen grass blades are prickly, and the white-gray sky foreshadows more than the weather forecast.

Peter Hedges, the writer/director/producer, exposes the single core issue in America today that is more immediate and more important than any other: the ugly, dangerous, brain-changing addiction that is metastasizing throughout our nation.

While the youth choir at the Episcopal church sings “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” with a purity of voice, there is another group at a run-down pawnshop strung out on drugs. Lucas Hedges (“Boy Erased” and “Lady Bird”) plays the link between the two worlds, an addict who wants to return home.

Julia Roberts, as his mother, represents the heart and soul of the forgiving sainthood of maternal love. She will risk her life for her son, not out of naïveté or false courage, but out of a fierce, protective, instinctual, primordial bond. There is no greater love than a mother for her child. None. Roberts catches this. We neither admire nor judge her. We are her.

Americans are already worried about the Armageddon of climate change, unrestricted gun laws, confusing immigration policies a crazy politician, but Peter Hedges shows us what the number one problem in America is. His film epitomizes the nation’s grass-roots wrestle with the devil. While he had not intended to cast his own son, Lucas Hedges, it was Julia Roberts who wisely and intuitively insisted. The addition of the responsible voice of handsome Courtney B. Vance, her husband in a second marriage, along with their bi-racial children further reminds us that we are all in this together. Using the wary teenage daughter (Kathryn Newton) from her first marriage as the voice of reason balances out the script, but it is Roberts’ performance that brings it home.

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