“Safe. Loved. Alive. Whole.” That’s how everyone should feel at the holidays, and it’s at least a few of the 17 emotions that play across the beaming, incredulous face of Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) when she finds her eldest son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), standing in the family driveway the day before Christmas.
But those words are Ben’s, and more than halfway through the film, he uses them to describe something else: the sensation he gets from the drugs that have already sent him to rehab multiple times and made a mess of his young life.
Now 77 days clean, he swears he’s ready for the challenges of home. Holly is ecstatic, and her two youngest kids can’t wait to climb him like a tree. But her teenage daughter, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and second husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), are more wary: Isn’t this reckless, and way too soon?
They’re not wrong; hazards are everywhere, from Ben’s backup stash lurking in the attic behind the ornaments to the dirtbag kid who eyeballs him meaningfully at the mall. Even an NA meeting brings encounters that boomerang him back to his ugly past, and remind him how eggshell-fragile his sobriety still is.
Wriitten and directed by Hedges’ father, Peter (Pieces of April), Ben is the second film this year after Beautiful Boy to deal with the wrecking ball of addiction and the seemingly boundless limits of parental love. But where Boy was a sort of sad, gorgeous mood board, Ben has the clear arc of a drama told nearly in real time.
Hedges is a flayed nerve, jittery and raw. Roberts may be the true revelation, though: She begs, she bargains, she swears like a teamster. But most of all, she loves her son, and to the detriment of common sense and safety and almost everything she knows, she’ll follow him into the dark. B+