Review: 'Ben is Back' rings emotionally false

Julia Roberts plays the mother of a drug addicted son in this contrived drama that misses the mark

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges in "Ben is Back."

Despite the best efforts of Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, "Ben is Back" rings false, handling its serious subject matter through a series of increasingly ludicrous contrivances. 

Roberts plays Holly Burns, a wife and mother who on Christmas Eve receives a surprise visit from her estranged son, Ben (Hedges). Ben is a drug addict who is supposed to be in rehab, but is out early for the holiday. Holly doesn't want to turn him away, but knows his issues are serious, and she decides to welcome him into their home, despite the misgivings of her husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), and her teenage daughter, Ivy (Kathryn Newton of "Blockers"). 

From there, "Ben is Back" takes a series of wildly melodramatic turns and a dog-napping at the Burns home leads to an all-nighter with a timeline that never quite adds up and situations that are more hammy than heartfelt.  

"Ben is Back" wants to be a gritty tribute to a mother's love and determination and a harrowing drama about the viciousness of drug addiction, but writer-director Peter Hedges ("Dan in Real Life," "Pieces of April," and Lucas' real-life father) can't find the right tone and has difficulties reining in matters of implausibility. (While a much different film, "Beautiful Boy" handled its child-parent addict issues in a more believable fashion.) 

Roberts and Hedges, for their part, both do commendable work, although Hedges seems too clean-cut and headstrong to be an addict.

"Ben is Back" is one of those awards season films that looks on paper to be a slam dunk: Mother and child relationship, drugs and drama is a cocktail for Oscar gold. In this case, the dunk is a dud.


'Ben is Back'


Rated R for language throughout and some drug use

Running time: 103 minutes