Ben is Back is a very present-tense title, not just a name but an active occurrence. That makes sense since it’s a very present-tense film, a moment-by-moment family drama that builds with the tension of a thriller. It doesn’t unfold in “real time,” so to speak, but feels like it operates on a ticking clock for which we don’t know the deadline, always on the precipice of a new discovery, each subsequent one more frightening than the previous, and we wonder when time will finally run out.
It’s an effective narrative strategy for a film that uses the unknown as a loaded weapon that works on a hair-trigger. Ben (Lucas Hedges) materializes as if from nowhere, emerging from the woods and arriving at his family’s home on Christmas Eve after his latest months-long stint at a sober living facility. Our uncertainty about where he came from is shared by his family. His mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), is so overwhelmed with shock and happiness that it isn’t until later that she snaps into protective mode and hides all the prescriptions drugs. Sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) exudes a suspicion that is fueled by jealousy – she assumes the worst, but we wonder if that’s just because she fears Ben’s return will shift attention away from her. Stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) insists Ben go back to the facility immediately, the standard hard-ass trope of a seemingly uncaring father figure. Naturally, the family is hesitant to fully believe Ben’s claims – he wasn’t scheduled for a release from sober living, but proudly states that his sponsor granted him a temporary home visit over the holidays based on his extraordinary progress.
If that feels like a synopsis dump, that’s because it all transpires with surprising swiftness. Ben is Back jumps right in and leaves the audience to catch up. Unlike so many stories of families ravaged by addiction, this one isn’t an epic travelogue of trials and tribulations, but an acute, unexpected day-in-the-life during which all of the seedy past details are gradually woven into the fabric. We share Ben’s family’s uncertainty about his successful sobriety, though we face an additional layer of vagueness since we don’t know the wealth of past pain he caused before getting sober. That mystery becomes the tentative stand-in for assurance; so long as we don’t know the full story, we can hope for the best even as we fear the worst. Ben is Back slowly reveals both.
Back in his normal environment, away from the strict controls of the facility, Ben faces a torrent of triggers and temptations. For her part, Holly vows to stay by his side at all times – which makes for an awkward visit to the department store dressing rooms. But we discover that Ben’s re-entry into normal life isn’t merely risking his sobriety, it’s risking the safety of his family. When the family returns home from a Christmas Eve church service to discover their home has been ransacked, Ben leaves to settle the score, Holly chases after him, and the film takes us on a nightlong odyssey into an upper-middle-class underworld.
Peter Hedges is the writer/director, and in many aspects, this film fits his very particular filmography. He’s sort of an auteur of First World Problems; invariably, he crafts minor-key dramedies about affluent white families who are intended to be much more dysfunctional than they actually are. There are similar irksome threads in Ben is Back, but there’s a much clearer understanding of the broken family dynamics – the hurt feels buried but present, the discord is rawer, the fear is palpable. It certainly helps to have two Oscar-caliber performances at the film’s center. Roberts hasn’t been given a role this rich in years, and this might be the younger Hedges’ best performance ever – having his father as his director brings out the best in him, and vice-versa. Their mother-son dynamic aches with authenticity, in a film that unravels a lifetime’s worth of love and pain in a single 24-hour period.