‘Ben is Back’ is career high for Roberts

‘Ben is Back’

Grade: 3 stars (out of 4)

Rating: R for for language throughout and some drug use

Running time: 1:43

By Jocelyn Noveck

AP National Writer

In one of Julia Roberts’ many heartbreaking scenes in “Ben is Back” – and they’re pretty much all heartbreaking – she lays down the law to her 19-year-old son, a recovering drug addict who’s shown up unexpectedly.

“Ben is Back,” written and directed by Peter Hedges and starring his son, Lucas Hedges. Hedges is as excellent, but it’s fair to say the movie belongs to Roberts. It’s a career peak, and a performance that deserves to be seen.

If there’s a key message here, it’s that youth addiction can wreak havoc on any family, regardless of class, race, geography or anything else. Here it’s leafy, upper-middle class Westchester County, but it could be Anywhere, USA.

Arriving home from church choir rehearsal, Holly and her three other children – a teen daughter and two youngsters – encounter Ben standing in the driveway, in an unplanned visit from his sober living facility.

Holly is thrilled – and scared. At first, things go well. But a trip to the local mall sets off trouble. People from Ben’s former life – he was a dealer, not simply a user – start to learn he’s back. During an evening at church, someone ransacks the family home and steals their beloved dog.

Guilt-ridden, Ben leaves; Holly hunts him down. Together, she insists, they will find whoever meant him harm, and do what it takes to recover the dog.

It’s terrifying to watch Holly sit in the car as Ben enters a forbidding drug den.

For Holly, a night with her son becomes a hellish journey through their bucolic hometown. It’s suddenly a different place. “I used there,” Ben says, pointing to one spot. “I robbed someone there.” Sitting in a late-night diner, he confesses that his pushing caused the death of a friend.

Writer-director Hedges mostly stays away from speechifying – other than in a very few over-scripted moments – and lets his two talented stars run the show. Especially Roberts, whose face the camera rarely leaves – and why would it? Her terrified, determined mother is one of the more unforgettable portrayals of the year. Leave the Kleenex home at your peril.

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