Seventy-seven days. That’s how long Ben Burns (“Manchester by the Sea” discovery Lucas Hedges) has been clean when he shows up at his family’s house for Christmas. Judging by the look on Julia Roberts’ face — a tangle of delight, concern, fear, and forgiveness that’s simultaneously universal and something only this one living actress could convey so well — his return is the best present any mother could hope for. As for the rest of the family, they’re not so sure. Ben has a nasty habit of relapsing and ruining the holidays, and anything could happen in the next 24 hours.
“Ben Is Back” is the story of one day in the lives of the Burnses, during which this prodigal son will test the love of everyone who cares about him — and remind audiences everywhere why world-class empathy generator Roberts is what writer-director Peter Hedges described as “the mother of mothers” at the film’s Toronto Film Festival premiere. And yes, before you ask: Hedges, the family-minded “Pieces of April” helmer, is Lucas’ real-life dad, creating a part that showcases the talented 21-year-old’s abilities as well. Frankly, the entire film is that rarest of gifts for its cast, providing virtually every character with a chance to play not only the present moment, but the complicated history they’ve established with Ben in the past, as well as whatever chance they see in the troubled young man’s future.
Nearly all of Ben’s old acquaintances have given up on him. “If he were black, he’d be in jail by now,” snaps his stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance), who’s the tough-love kind of parent whose pragmatic approach to Ben’s addiction is what’s paying for his rehab — where Ben should be, rather than surprising his family in their suburban driveway on Christmas Eve. Holly (Roberts) can’t argue with that, though she’s too much the optimist to face the truth no parent wants to confront: Chances are alarmingly high that some day, she’s going to get the phone call telling her that Ben is dead (a chilling idea that drives not only this film, but also Kent Jones’ Tribeca-winning treasure “Diane,” which stars Mary Kay Place as a mother facing similar concerns over her drug-addict son).
Instead of sending Ben back to his program, Holly firmly announces that he is allowed to stay one night, for Christmas, but he is never to leave her sight — rules she delivers with such conviction, and such love, that the Toronto audience burst into spontaneous applause. As moms go, Holly is some kind of superhero. She never gives up, de-prioritizing her three other kids (two kids from her second marriage, plus Kathryn Newton as Ben’s sister Ivy, who makes her disapproval of the situation known at every turn) to give him her full attention. So it breaks your heart when she finally admits, “I lost him a long time ago.”
Most movies are focused directly on the present moment, following along with a story as it unfolds, but “Ben Is Back” is different, creating the sense that the lives of each of its richly shaded characters continues even when she or he is not on-screen. The proof is right there in the title, pointing at the complicated history Ben left behind when he left town — history that boils back to life upon his return. At the Christmas Mass, Ben sees Beth (Rachel Bay Jones), the mother of an old girlfriend, who must have overdosed somewhere along the way. It was Ben who got her hooked. And later, when they return home, the door is smashed open, the Christmas tree is knocked down, and Ponce (the family dog) is missing — clearly the handiwork of someone still upset at something Ben once did.
Hedges’ script is like that: Even within the relatively familiar realm of a small-town family drama, it’s constantly surprising audiences by referring to events that happened years before, when Ben was a different person — or was he? As an addict, Ben is also a consummate liar whose every utterance could be a plot to get what he wants, which makes the screenplay all the more wily as we try to second-guess his intentions. What happens next takes the film in a different direction, as “Ben Is Back” becomes “Ponce Is Gone,” a more conventional procedural search to find the dog.
That sparks a journey through Ben’s past — but only superficially, as Peter Hedges navigates the tips of various icebergs from Ben’s time as a dealer while wisely leaving the majority of those incidents up to the audience’s imagination — for which Holly is now along for the ride, discovering things she never wanted to know about how far he sank during the worst of his addiction. No parent wants to picture such things, and it’s a blessing that the film leaves them rather obscure, although it begs the question why, if she’s so concerned about Ben, she doesn’t just leave the dognapping problem to be dealt with the next day. “I’m not worth it,” he says at one point, trying to convince her to let him finish this seemingly dangerous search on his own. The truth is, Ponce isn’t worth it, and they really ought to call the police.
Or maybe sticking to the Burns residence would have made “Ben Is Back” feel too much like a play. Hedges is the kind of writer whose dialogue already has the slightly stilted, on-the-nose quality of New York theater (though less so than “Manchester by the Sea” filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan). Still, when he does get specific — as with a local supplier named Clayton (Michael Esper) and one of Ben’s old buddies, now an addict who calls himself Spider (David Zaldivar, in a small role that suggests bigger opportunities ahead) — the film starts to feel more conventional, as if striving too hard to make a statement. It’s most effective when trusting the actors to deliver the subtext, rather than putting those ideas directly into words. Then again, Hedges understands that in filmmaking, as in life, should things go wrong, most parents may never forgive themselves for the things they should have said.