Written and directed by Peter Hedges, Ben is Back follows Lucas Hedges’ title character, a recovering addict, as he arrives unexpectedly at his family’s home around Christmastime – with his sudden appearance throwing his mother (Julia Roberts’ Holly) and her husband (Courtney B. Vance’s Neal) for a loop. It’s a familiar premise that’s employed, at the outset, to agreeably engrossing effect by Hedges, as the filmmaker does an effective job of establishing the various protagonists and the somewhat precarious situation in which they find themselves – with the engaging atmosphere heightened by seriously solid performances all around (although it’s inevitably clear that both Roberts and Lucas Hedges turn in the picture’s strongest work). There’s little doubt, as well, that Hedges derives a certain amount of suspense out of the will-Ben-relapse-or-won’t-he question, while the smattering inclusion of surprisingly electrifying moments (eg Holly confronts the dementia-addled doctor who got her son hooked on drugs) perpetuates the low-key yet entertaining vibe. It’s disappointing to note, then, that Ben is Back takes an obvious turn for the worse as it moves into its comparatively underwhelming second half, as Hedges steers the narrative into a scavenger-hunt midsection detailing Ben and Holly’s tour, as they seek out the kidnapped family dog, of the former’s seedy past – with the less-than-engrossing nature of this portion of the proceedings ensuring that the whole thing stumbles to its decidedly disappointing conclusion (which is too bad, certainly, given the promising nature of the opening stretch).
**1/2 out of ****