Unravelling like an enthralling page-turner that never once feels manipulated or mechanical, director Peter Hedges' "Ben is Back", without a doubt, is an exceptionally moving film that raises the question, can a mother's unconditional love overcome her son's demons without consuming both of them.
Set over the Christmas holidays, a time for family reunions, the film opens with Holly (Julia Roberts) returning home, with three of her four children, from a Christmas Carol rehearsal. Just as they enter their driveway, they are taken by surprise with the presence of an unexpected figure at their doorstep.
The unexpected figure is Ben, Holly's oldest son from her previous marriage. He has a ruinous past and he has not managed to win back their trust. While Ben has earned their apprehensions from all accounts, he is really trying to get his life back on track. Now, he has returned home early from a drug rehab.
While Holly appears overjoyed, her daughter and Ben's sister Ivy, seems petrified. Ivy makes frantic calls to Neal, Holly's second husband. With too many triggers in their house for an addict who has been clean only for 77 days, he too shares Ivy's sentiments. They are both apprehensive about Ben's presence as he had ruined their last few Christmases.
But Holly is resolute, she stands by her son. And over a period of time, it becomes clear that Holly is the enabling force that is constantly giving Ben chance after chance. So after some deliberation with Neal, she puts Neal's concerns into action. She tells Ben that he would be allowed to stay for a single day and that he'll never leave her sight the following twenty-four hours. What follows is the gruesome test of time and endurance.
The script written by the director, slowly peels back the characters' past making the entire storytelling engaging. It keeps the audiences guessing, leaning forward into the screen, fasten on the edge of their seats and genuinely curious as to where this is all heading.
The first act of the film plays with the push-pull of the relationships, offering moments of levity which manoeuvres to heighten the emotions. The second half takes a tangent from the first when Holly refuses to abandon Ben and together they go on a wild goose chase trying to locate the pooch who has been kidnapped by Ben's drug dealers.
On the performance front, Julia Roberts is in excellent form. She portrays Holly with all passion, intensity and fury. With her signature dazzling smile, she lights up the screen and offers an over exaggerated laugh at Ben's stories or antics with his siblings. She conveys Holly's hope that this time will be different and skilfully shows the gradual cracks in her demeanours as Ben's visit takes a turn for the worst.
Lucas, for his part, navigates his tricky role so well, going from confidence to self-loathing in the blink of an eye. What could have been a throwaway reaction shot of him watching his sister sing in church becomes a perfect study of pride, guilt and empathy in the span of a few seconds.
Courtney B. Vance as Neal and Kathryn Newton as Ivy provide strong supporting performances as their characters become torn between Ben and Holly. Overall, the film is thrilling as it contains a high level of dread and is equally poignant as you start caring, deeply and urgently for the mother and son duo.
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