Does being a good mother give you a certain amount of moral authority? It should, right?
It certainly does when the indefatigable Julia Roberts plays a harrowed, tireless mother of four who orders organic berries and allows an extra 15 minutes of screen time once in a while and her teenage son is an addict out on a Christmas reprieve from a de-addiction centre.
Peter Hedges’s Ben Is Back is a Christmas movie set in clinically clean, affluent, snowed-under, white American suburbia with one unflinching message: drug addiction is a menace to families and society. Roberts is the lonely, tough voice that expresses this social anxiety that cuts across class, race and gender. Peter Hedges (who has also written the film) makes the message superbly effective through a taut story that nonetheless devolves into a faux thriller in the last 20 minutes.
Lucas Hedges, the director’s son, who was efficient in the lead role in the recent release Boy Erased, summons an imploding volatility that works excellently for a drug abuse film. But Ben Is Back is ultimately a Julia Roberts show. As a character who is able to make the helicopter mom seem less of a demon and more of an emotional bulwark, she propels the drama forward by stepping out of her home and venturing into dark alleys in which drug addiction isn’t just a social malaise unique to African-Americans.
The film begins with full-throttle inter-racial perfection: a rehearsal for a Christmas church skit in which the three children of Holly (Roberts) – Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and two young children of colour – play roles. A hooded young man menacingly circumnavigates Holly’s home soaked in flawlessly cold colours and squeaky clean glass. When she drives back home, she finds her eldest, Ben (Lucas Hedges), waiting for her. Ivy is tense, but Holly steps out of the car and runs forward to embrace Ben with tears.
Ben’s addiction clearly threatens Ivy and Holly’s husband Neal (Courtney B Vance). Neal believes that Ben wouldn’t have it easy if he were black. The beginning isn’t a set-up for this conflict, though, and what unfolds is Holly’s emotional pluck to see her son through what seems like a night of disarming triggers for Ben’s downslide into that doomsday high.
“You take care of our children, I’ll take care of mine,” she tells her tortured husband. Roberts goes all out, and makes the lone woman protecting her son against drug addiction the perfect sympathy bait. Thankfully, the screenplay doesn’t make drug-addiction the never-ending blurs of weak will that most films playing to the gallery do. Lucas Hedges has some layers to work with – his extremely emotional connection to his mother balances with his truth about addiction – and he plays the role with subtle energy.
The other members of the cast, including Vance, aren’t characters unto themselves. As a result we get a movie with a strong emotional centre and enough credo to the long-established tradition of Hollywood about Julia Roberts: She can tap into model White American womanhood like no other actor can.