Julia Roberts gives one of her best performances in recent years in “Ben is Back,” but the film is so similar to “Beautiful Boy” it’s hard to muster enthusiasm to see it.
Shocked when her son slips out of rehab for Christmas, Holly Burns (Roberts) sets down specific ground rules and doesn’t want Ben (Lucas Hedges) to go anywhere without her.
Ben talks the talk, but she’s convinced he’s still using and connecting with dealers. At church, they meet a woman whose daughter has died as a result of an overdose and, instantly, a flag of sorts goes up. Sure enough, when they get home, someone has broken into their home and kidnapped the family dog.
Ben says he knows where to find the pet – but it could be a ruse to get drugs.
Director Peter Hedges (Lucas’ father) makes sure others are skeptical of Ben’s new outlook. Holly’s second husband (Courtney B. Vance) and daughter (Kathryn Newton) don’t hesitate to call him out.
Holly clings to hope until she’s in the car looking for her son. Then, Roberts gets to rev her emotions and show just how determined she is to save him.
Steve Carell had a similar quest in “Beautiful Boy” but that film handled the journey organically. Timothee Chalamet was superb as a boy trying to pretend he’s fine – and drug-free. Carell was every parent, unsure where to turn and when to issue ultimatums.
Lucas Hedges, meanwhile, is a bit more transparent. He says what his mother wants to hear but there’s always the nagging doubt that lingers.
Both performances are good. But you can sense the exasperation in “Beautiful Boy.” In “Ben is Back,” denial is fairly obvious.
While Peter Hedges presses all the necessary buttons, he doesn’t get a film that’s as shattering as his predecessor’s. This is very much what you’d expect.
In several scenes, Roberts acts like Shirley MacLaine in “Terms of Endearment” -- a bit over the top.
With Lucas Hedges, she’s ideal, pressing like a mother would.
Even though too much of “Ben is Back” takes place in a car, it moves along and ends with a scene that brings the mother’s mission in focus.
“Beautiful Boy” is a better film but “Ben is Back” has moments that will make you weep.