The troubled-teen genre is getting a workout this year, with films like “Beautiful Boy,” starring Timothée Chalamet as a teenage meth addict, and Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased,” starring Lucas Hedges as a teen whose parents won’t accept that he’s gay and push him into a conversion therapy program.
Hedges also appears with Julia Roberts in his father Peter Hedges’ “Ben Is Back,” a natural bookend to “Beautiful Boy” although it takes a very different approach to teen addiction.
While the latter covers a family struggling over a wide swath of time, “Ben Is Back” takes place over the course of a single night, Christmas Eve.
The title gives away the setup: Ben, who’s been away for almost four months in rehab, unexpectedly shows up on the front door just before Christmas. Mom (Roberts) is delighted and a little wary, very much in that order; stepdad (Courtney B. Vance) and sister (Kathryn Newton) are much more in the wary camp, recalling past holiday disasters caused by unspecified but clearly drug-related behavior on Ben’s part.
It’s a family drama that’s also familial behind the scenes, given the fact that director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,” “Dan in Real Life”) is Lucas Hedges’ father. (He teared up when he introduced the film at the Princess of Wales Theatre and said that Lucas was in rehearsals on Broadway and couldn’t attend.)
And while it’s fortunate for Peter Hedges that his son grew up to be very good at playing troubled teens (witness “Boy Erased” and his Oscar nomination for “Manchester by the Sea”), he also landed Roberts in her most substantial and most powerful role in years.
While the other actors get their moments (particularly Newton as a sister who wants to believe in her brother but just can’t bring herself to do it), this is really the Julia and Lucas show, and both are more than up to the task.
Without the film ever showing the peaks and valleys of a journey through addiction, Roberts and Hedges sketch it in casual references to past events, but mostly in the scars they both carry. For Ben, the worst part isn’t what he did to himself with opiods – it’s what he did to others when he began dealing. For mom, the challenge becomes getting Ben to believe that he’s worth saving, a task that may be beyond her.
After showing up unannounced, Ben is forbidden from leaving his mom’s sight. But when they come back from a Christmas Eve church service to find the house ransacked and the dog missing, the housebound drama turns into something very different.
A big chunk of the second half of the film is a mom-and-son all-night search for the dog, which turns into a dangerous journey through the seamiest parts of Ben’s past. The thriller-ish action almost derails the family issues that had been playing out in the film up to that point, with the dog feeling like an occasionally distracting canine McGuffin.
The change in tone also gives Roberts the chance to be as wounded and desperate as we’ve ever seen her, but also as fearsome as we’ve seen since “Erin Brockovich.”
In this time for movies about teens in trouble, it’s the mom in this one who packs the biggest punch.