MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
It’s Christmas Eve morning and the Burns family is at church going over a rehearsal for the Nativity pageant. Holly (Roberts) tells her youngest daughter that if she doesn’t want to have to go to church every week in the future, she needs to make Christmas Eve count. It’s a funny and believable moment for a holiday-themed movie.
After rehearsal, as the family drives up to their house they encounter Ben (Hedges), their young adult son. He has managed to find a ride to leave the treatment center where he is in recovery from drug addiction. He is not supposed to be here, but is responding to his mother’s warm words over the phone that “the best Christmas present of all would be to have you with us on Christmas Eve”. Ben’s teenage sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is outraged and upset. Holly is flustered but at cross purposes with Ben’s return. Ben has been clean for 77 days but being back in his home town is going to raise more red flags than a Russian military parade. There are situations and persons from his past that could make things tough.
Holly decides to offer Ben tough love. She makes him take a drug test and then insists that she will be his shadow for the next 24 hours. They will stick together all the way through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And then they will drive him back to the recovery center. Ben’s stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) is also upset at the possibilities for family disruption, but Holly’s strong-mindedness and deep love for Ben win the day, although “win” might not be quite the right word.
Holly attends a NA meeting with Ben and begins to feel discomfort with some of the other participants. Who knows Ben from the past? Are there persons who could tempt him to start using again? And how do you react when suddenly your son disappears from your sight for a few minutes? Do you suspect that he is up to something, or do you honor his efforts to improve himself? Is he telling the truth or trying to exploit your love for his habit?
Ben Is Back does a masterful job at uncovering the circles of relationships that are affected by opioid addiction, including those who have died from overdosing, those who overprescribe or sell drugs left over from prescriptions, former friends who are now living on the street and begging for money, and the debts from the past long overdue to drug dealers. Writer-director Peter Hedges manages to include much emotional truth in a film that ultimately turns into a suspense thriller centered on a mother’s strong love for her child. Lucas Hedges is one of our finest young actors (and the son of Peter), able to convey Ben’s pain and sadness through tearful eyes and genuine remorse, even if real repentance may be out of his reach.
The film has some shortcomings, primarily involving the gimmick of its real time chronology. This is the longest Christmas Eve I have ever seen on film, with folks staying up well past midnight (including a drive-up pharmacy window!). And there are a few over-the-top Mom Moments mixed in with terrific acting from Julia Roberts. But, overall, Ben Is Back is well worth your time. This film is highly recommended for Christian youth and parents to watch together (if you can tolerate the swearing), for it is a film about how deep and abiding love can forgive and stand by another who has fallen: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Addiction lasts a lifetime, so love needs to be up to the task.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: Sacrificial love and longsuffering are depicted in this honest and suspenseful film about opioid addiction.
Four pitchforks: For an uncompromising look at addiction and those hurt along the way; pervasive swearing; a few unscrupulous drug deals.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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