Hope is an intensely powerful thing.
It persists in the belief that things can, and will be better, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary, when events time and again betray the fact that the thing that is being hoped against has already, regrettably, come to pass.
That is very much the case in Ben is Back, a powerfully-understated film with standout performances by Julia Roberts and Lucas hedges as a mother and son who are both caught in that dreadul limbo between hope and grindingly-cruel reality.
It is not, as you might imagine, any kind of place anyone would actually want to inhabit but as the film tells it’s compelling story, you realise very quickly that neither mother nor son want to admit that the idealised family life they hope for may have already slipped far from their grasp.
Neither of them wants to admit that of course and as the film opens on Christmas Eve, with Holly (Julie Roberts) ferrying her other kids, Ben’s younger siblings Ivy (Kathryn Newton), Lacey (Mia Flower) and Liam (Jakari Fraser) home after preparations for the annual Christmas play at church, only to find drug addict son Ben back from rehab at the pragmatically-named Sober Living, both cling to the idea that maybe, just maybe, this time will be the time when all the pieces finally fit back together.
There are doubts, of course, how could there not be with the trail of familial destruction Ben has left in his wake, especially over two very memeorable, for all the wrong reasons, Christmases, but both Holly and Ben want to believe things can, and will, be better.
The Greek chorus of sceptics, led by Ben’s stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance), father of Lacey and Liam, and sister Ivy is openly unsure about allowing Ben back in at all, and it’s not until Neal witnesses how angry and upset Holly is when he all but orders her to drive her son back to rehab, that he relents and he and Holly concoct a deal whereby Ben can stay for 24 hours but with very strict conditions.
Desperately eager to slot back into family life, 77 days-clean Ben readily agrees to a raft of conditions including Orwellian-levels of observation by Holly and for a while everything looks like it might be as good as the hope that Ben and Holly are holding to for dear life suggests it could be.
Ben plays with Liam and Lacey, helps Ivy gather firewood and goes Christmas present shopping with Holly, all moments that, on paper at least, look like the very essence of warm and cost domesticity, the sort of thing that has eluded Ben particularly as he has slid in, and more usually, out of sobriety.
Powerful though hope may be, however, it has an almighty battle on its hands with the force and persuasion of Ben’s addiction which finds way to assert itself in ways insidious and covert, so effectively in fact that until Ben admits, ashamedly and with mounting despair, to some of the things he’s done just in the few hours he’s been home, Holly has no idea that even in the midst of hope reborn, that it’s being eroded.
As events spiral out of control, and an idealised Christmas becomes anything but, Holly has to grapple with the eye-opening fact that she has no idea what kind of life Ben has been leading in his dark, drug-fuelled life.
Granted Ben has gone out of his way to hide his connections to drug dealers such as Clayton (Michael Esper) who drags his one time lieutenant back into his orbit in a way that extinguishes any lingering hope Ben that the life he wants and the life he has can ever come together.
It’s heartbreaking to watch as both mother and son claw to keep hope alive, only to have to admit that perhaps it has long ceased to have any real meaning.
Where Ben is Back excels is in this delicate, narratively-sustaining dance between hope and despair which in Holly’s case at least, involves violent swings back and forth that though coming close to seeing off whatever hope she has left, never quite succeed.
That’s not to say the film is brutally realistic; it is, a thousand times so.
Time and again Holly is reminded, through seeing Beth (Rachel Bay Jone) the mother of Ben’s now-dead-by-overdose friend Maggie, seeing the grimy underside of Ben’s life away from heart and home and bearing witness to Ben’s ongoing deceit and game-playing, that hope is a fool’s errand with an addict child.
But, like every mother before her, Holly can’t ever quite let it go fully, and as you watch wrestle with the upswing of hope and the downswing of reality biting back, you feel so deeply for a woman caught in a seemingly endless loop that shows no sign of ever being resolved.
At least, not how she wants it to be.
Immersing yourself in this tug-of-war of hope and despair is intense but deeply-rewarding as you witness the full gravity of what happens to a family that wants to be whole again, a mother desperate for that to happen and a drug addict son who wants the same but constantly self-sabotages despite himself.
It’s heartbreaking to watch, a rollercoaster that seems to be stop and which you might think would beget a film full to the brim with earnest, heartstopping melodrama.
But though it amps up the narrative momentum and emotional impact in the final act, Ben is Back never resorts to epic over-emoting or crass dramatic over-swings, preferring to let the raw reality of what’s taking place, and cannot-look-away finely-tuned performances from Robert and Hedges, whose father Peter directed the film, carry the film to its gripping finale.
It’s powerfully-immersive storytelling that draws you in, that never relinquishes hope even as it details a thousand reasons why that would be the sensible option, and which reminds you that though our head may argue that hope has to be abandoned, the heart often has other ideas entirely and can never, even in the face of the horrors of life as it and not as we wish it could be, be entirely discounted.