Roadside Attractions/ Lionsgate
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Peter Hedges
Screenwriter: Peter Hedges
Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/16/18
Opens: December 7, 2018
Climate change, the economy, immigration, wars—these are global problems that cannot be solved by one country alone. But the opioid epidemic, the thousands of deaths yearly from overdosing on prescription drugs; that appears to be a problem largely within our own United States. The pundits and the medical community are not sure why this is so, but people of all ages have become devastated by a problem that they brought upon themselves, perhaps by being too trusting of the doctors who prescribe Oxycodone, Vicodin, Percocet and the like, all legal pharmaceuticals that should be used sparingly if at all to avoid dependence and addiction.
Substance abuse could be treated as a documentary, but more interestingly, Peter Hedges’ “Ben is Back” does the job of being both didactic and entertaining, however morbid the subject matter. The action takes place in upstate New York (filmed largely in Nyack and Yonkers), centering on Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) and his mom Holly Burns (Julia Roberts). If you can picture Julia Roberts living in the ‘burbs, wearing an apron, and being married to an overly formal and strict husband, you can ride with the show. In fact what gives the picture is heft is a stellar performance only somewhat by Julia Roberts but in this case more by the upcoming Lucas Hedges, who is the writer-director’s son and who has appeared winningly as Jared in “Boy Erased,” a splendid take-down of the Christian Right’s rooting for gay conversion therapy to convert homosexuals into what they consider normal people. Never mind that it doesn’t work while it seeks to change identities that people have from the time they are born.
Ben is about twenty years old (Hedges is 22) and had spent the last 77 days in an expensive program to convert him from an opioid addict into someone who can carry on a normal life without the sickness and expense of a drug dependency. Unlike conversion therapy, the treatment for addicts can work, though I’ve heard it said that you can be “clean” for even 30 years and yet become newly attracted to the very medications that have driven both you and your loved ones crazy.
On Christmas Eve, Ben, the family’s black sheep, comes home to celebrate the holidays, though his arrival has taken his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and his stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) by surprise. Thinking that he should not be spending even a day away from the institution, the family are properly concerned about the visit. And they should be. During the course of Christmas, already a season that drives quite a few people into depressive states, Ben will run into old friends and acquaintances, including the drug seller for whom he had operated as a runner and a fellow addict desperate for money to buy a fix and relieve his sickness.
Holly shows her tough love for the young man by insisting that he never leave her sight. She watches him while he is urinating, she hides her jewelry and every kind of pill that he might experiment with, and sits behind him at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where the members applaud him for being sober for 77 days.
The movie is filled with melodramatic moments when a home burglary leads to the kidnapping of the family Cairn terrier, who has been taken from the home for purposes other than a cash ransom. When Lucas steals his mother’s car, the story ends with a frantic chase, by which time Holly realizes that her son cannot be trusted for even an hour outside of her presence.
The end credits tell us where to go if you or someone you know has a substance abuse problem, but didacticism is hardly the principal purpose. Perhaps the awards-worthy performance of young Lucas Hedges might be the principal reason for attending a screening, a solid detective story, a coming of age tale, and a dramatic look at why Christmas is not always a time for rejoicing.
103 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B