I’ll be high for Christmas

Julia Roberts (left) delivers a moving performance as Lucas Hedges’ (right) emotionally devastated mother.

Julia Roberts (left) delivers a moving performance as Lucas Hedges’ (right) emotionally devastated mother.

Rated 4.0

In Ben Is Back Julia Roberts plays Holly Burns, a suburban mother of teenage Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and, by her second husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance), preteens Lacey (Mia Fowler) and Liam (Jakari Fraser). After picking up the kids from a Christmas Eve rehearsal at church, she drives home to find an unexpected guest: Her oldest child, young adult Ben (Lucas Hedges). He has been in a sober-living rehab facility for the past 77 days, and now he’s home for Christmas on a 24-hour pass. His sponsor thought it would be a good idea, Ben promises Holly.

Ivy has heard Ben’s promises before; her stomach turns at the thought that her holiday has just been ruined. She calls Neal to tell him: Here comes trouble. Meanwhile, Holly does her hasty best to junkie-proof the house, then sternly tells Ben he is not to leave her sight while he’s home—no, not even in the bathroom—and he’s to go back to the facility promptly the next day. Ben flirts with a don’t-you-trust-me pout, but he knows it won’t fly. He has been trusted too many times.

Then, out of Ben’s earshot, Holly snarls in anger at Ivy and Neal, who can’t bring themselves to disguise their dread and resignation at what they sense is inevitably coming. Is she angry for Ben, because they’re giving up on him, or for herself, because they can’t at least pretend to share her denial?

Holly’s watchdog duties threaten to overwhelm both her and Ben. Shopping at the mall, she encounters the family doctor, now dementia-riddled, whose opioid prescription after a skateboard injury got Ben hooked in the first place. While his wife is away, Holly rails at the senile old man—“I hope you die a horrible death”—frustrated that he’ll forget her anger in five minutes while she’ll always fester with it.

She and Ben encounter the mother of Maggie, Ben’s girlfriend who died of the drugs he hooked her on. Everywhere they turn, they see the wreckage that Ben’s using, lying and relapsing have wrought, while Ben’s steps are shadowed by his former drug associates who, we sense, know him better than his own mother does—though maybe no better than do his sister and stepfather.

Written and directed by Peter Hedges (father of Lucas), Ben Is Back—despite Lucas’ brave performance, isn’t Ben’s movie, it’s Holly’s—the portrait of an enabler whose determination not to give up on her son threatens to drag the rest of the family, even the family dog, down to hell with him.

It’s Roberts’ movie, too; her performance is, if anything, even braver than Hedges’. Her Holly caroms between anger, despair, frustration and hope, after all this time still not sure what to do about anything. Ben Is Back imparts a clear-eyed insight that it’s everyone, not just the addict, who has to take things one day at a time.