Christmas might be emotionally fraught regardless of who you’re or what household you grew up in, however it may be particularly difficult while you’re an addict, and much more so when you will have a tenuous grasp in your restoration. That is presupposed to be such a joyous time—essentially the most fantastic time of the 12 months, even—however expectations and regrets can function triggers, including to the anxiousness of the season.
Author-director Peter Hedges depicts this phenomenon with intimacy and empathy in “Ben Is Again,” a few teenage opioid addict who leaves rehab for 24 hours—supposedly with the encouragement of his sponsor—to go to his household on Christmas Eve. Hedges’ movie is stronger in its first half, when it’s an understated character drama, than in its second half, when it morphs right into a contrived crime thriller. However the performances stay uniformly sturdy and maintain the story collectively, even because it threatens to spin uncontrolled.
Hedges’ son, Lucas—who has put collectively a string of sturdy work in simply the previous couple of years between “Manchester By the Sea,” “Girl Hen,” “Boy Erased” and “mid90s”—stars because the title character, a charismatic younger man who radiates a mixture of enthusiasm and comprehensible unease. His relationship with Julia Roberts as his mom, Holly, offers the movie with its vivid coronary heart. You may really feel each conflicting emotion she’s experiencing as she pulls as much as the household’s home along with her different children in tow and is shocked on the sight of her eldest, a hoodied 19-year-old standing awkwardly within the driveway. She’s thrilled and terrified, and the brilliantly expressive Roberts makes each of these sensations seen concurrently.
“Ben Is Again” takes place in snowy, idyllic, small-town New York, and Ben comes from a household of consolation and means. Holly has two children along with her second husband (Courtney B. Vance) along with Ben and his youthful sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), from her first. The spacious home is bustling with pleasure and preparations for the youngsters’ performances at Christmas Eve mass. The illness of dependancy can afflict anybody, anyplace, Hedges reminds us, simply as “Stunning Boy” did earlier this 12 months.
Holly is keen to make Ben’s sudden arrival appear as regular as doable, laughing too arduous at his jokes and buzzing concerning the kitchen in a flurry of exercise. However she’s additionally been burned sufficient occasions to know that she should rapidly and quietly clear out the drugs from her drugs cupboard and collect valuables from her jewellery field. Ben’s a charmer and a talker—he’ll burst right into a foolish music to amuse the little ones—and it’s clear that he’s attempting strenuously, as nicely, to make his return a cheerful one. However he’s additionally apprehensive about going into sure rooms in the home—just like the attic, the place he used to stash his medication—for concern of the recollections they’ll conjure.
Hedges’ route is environment friendly and understated in these scenes. The moments between Ben and Holly speaking within the kitchen or tackling crowds on the mall throughout some last-minute buying are the movie’s strongest. He correctly lets his actors act, giving them area to point a lot in only a significant look. What they don’t say to one another is as vital as what they do say. On the identical time, a monologue Hedges delivers when Ben shares at a Narcotics Nameless assembly is a strong instance of this younger actor’s vary, from swagger to introspection and, in the end, remorse.
The fixed push-pull between Hedges and Roberts, the see-saw of the ability dynamic as every tries to navigate this thorny state of affairs, is essentially the most compelling component of “Ben Is Again.” All of the demons are nonetheless there, all of the recollections and the issues Ben can’t bear in mind. And that’s particularly clear when he runs into individuals from his previous. “It’s been a very long time. I assumed you have been useless,” one man on the mall says off-handedly. Ben is jumpy, shaky, maybe not prepared for this but. In the meantime, ever the mother in management, Holly tries to persuade herself it’s all going to be effective, even repeating 12-step slogans like “It really works when you work it.”
However then within the second half of “Ben Is Again,” it turns into a distinct form of film: a low-key thriller during which Ben and Holly are compelled to run round city, revisiting his misdeeds seeking clues to a thriller. It’s not as fascinating narratively or as relatable emotionally. However as soon as once more, Roberts provides a gripping efficiency as a mom coming to new realizations concerning the youngster she thought she lastly understood. It’s like she’s seeing him utterly for the primary time, and it’s shattering once more.
In the meantime, she’s attempting to maintain all of the plates spinning for the remainder of the household on this present day of nice expectations. Vance, because the skeptical stepdad, takes a thinly-written function and makes it meatier. Newton is sort of good, too, because the household’s voice of cause. (She and Hedges additionally performed siblings final 12 months in “Three Billboards Outdoors Ebbing, Missouri.”) Ivy has seen an excessive amount of, so she sees via everybody’s lies—even the well-intentioned ones from her mother.
“Ben Is Again” ends on a be aware of obscure hope, but it surely’s a reminder that Christmas Day is only one extra alternative to take it sooner or later at a time.