Movie review: 'Ben Is Back'

Brad Keefe
Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges star in 'Ben Is Back'

Whelp, it's not even Christmas yet, and I've cried in a movie theater. During a Julia Roberts movie.

In fairness, I do tend to get pretty emo during the holidays. I even have a secret affinity for Hallmark Christmas movies.

But writer/director Peter Hedges gets the credit for “Ben Is Back,” a magnificently acted family drama anchored by great performances from Roberts and Hedges' own talented son, Lucas.

The younger Hedges may or may not get another Oscar nod to join his first for his breakout in “Manchester by the Sea,” but he's adding to a fine 2018 that already included performances in “Boy Erased” and “Mid90s.”

The elder Hedges was responsible for one of my favorite non-traditional holiday movies: the 2003, Katie Holmes-led, Thanksgiving family dramedy “Pieces of April.” (Seriously, check it out.)

“Ben Is Back” shares a similar pedigree, telling the story of a dysfunctional family and playing out over a holiday visit.

Holly Burns (Roberts) is a typical suburban mom. During a Christmas pageant rehearsal, she gets her two youngest kids to behave by reminding them how they only come to church one day a year. “Do you want to come to church every Sunday?” she asks.

It's a lighthearted moment that takes a turn when immediately after they find Burns' teenage son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), has come home for Christmas.

This isn't a typical homecoming story. Ben is back from a rehab facility.

Holly welcomes him as only a mother can. Ben's sister (Kathryn Newton) and stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) greet him with a skepticism that indicates a rocky recent past.

Over the course of his visit, portions of that past begin to emerge, and they are not pretty. Holly is left with a difficult mix of a mother's affection and tough love for a son who is an addict.

Like this year's “Beautiful Boy,” this is a story of how addiction affects a family that has means to battle it that many don't, and it again shows that's often not enough.

Though it sometimes borders on melodrama, I'm a fan of how Peter Hedges tells a family's story compressed into a tight timeframe. The way events bleed off to pull together pieces of the family's past is an effective device.

Roberts gives one of her finest performances in years as a doting mother who wants to believe her son is in recovery but can get tough when she must. It's often not a subtle performance, but one of great range.

Hedges, working under the direction of his father, also brought out my tears. He's already proving to be one of the finest actors of his generation.

Note: “Ben Is Back” doesn't open in Columbus for a couple of weeks, but it's a hell of a way to spend Christmas with the family.

Opens December 21

4 stars out of 5

'Ben Is Back'