Julia Roberts has always been irrefutably likeable. I would dare even those who claim immunity to resist her most captivating feature: the way her eyes start smiling a few beats before her mouth has gotten the signal.
You see that smile only a few times in Ben Is Back, writer-director Peter Hedges’ well-intentioned film about a young recovering heroin addict who sneaks away from his treatment center to spend Christmas with his family. Ben (Lucas Hedges, the director’s son) is clearly not yet ready to get back to real life. Still, he’s desperate to connect with his two much younger half siblings, the family dog (who, we’re told, saved his life after an overdose) and most of all his mother Holly (Roberts), who loves him unconditionally–well past the point where setting boundaries would be best. It turns out that Ben, as both a former user and dealer, has made too many enemies in his family’s smallish town. On Christmas Eve, vandals break into the house and steal the dog. Holly and Ben set out to find him before the little ones wake up on Christmas morning.
If it all sounds rather jaunty–it isn’t. The emotionally excruciating missing-dog hunt gives Holly a glimpse into Ben’s past, and she learns some things a mother doesn’t want to know. But the movie is so assertively about the social issue at its heart–the way opioid addiction tears families apart–that it barely leaves room for its characters to breathe. At times it feels more as if they’re spokespeople with jobs to do. That takes its toll on both lead actors, especially Roberts: one minute she’s Denial Mom, the next she’s Tough Love Mom. We also meet Angry, Blame-Laying Mom and Cool Mom with a Sense of Humor. Even for a character reeling through helplessness and despair, that’s a lot of moms. And not even Roberts can make us buy them all.
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