Film Review: Julia Roberts in ‘Ben Is Back’

Seventy-seven days. That’s how long Ben Burns (“Manchester by the Sea” discovery Lucas Hedges) has been clean when he shows up at his family’s house for Christmas. Judging by the look on Julia Roberts’ face — a tangle of delight, concern, fear, and forgiveness that’s simultaneously universal and something only this one living actress could convey so well — his return is the best present any mother could hope for. As for the rest of the family, they’re not so sure. Ben has a nasty habit of relapsing and ruining the holidays, and anything could happen in the next 24 hours.

“Ben Is Back” is the story of one day in the lives of the Burnses, during which this prodigal son will test the love of everyone who cares about him — and remind audiences everywhere why world-class empathy generator Roberts is what writer-director Peter Hedges described as “the mother of mothers” at the film’s Toronto Film Festival premiere. And yes, before you ask: Hedges, the family-minded “Pieces of April” helmer, is Lucas’ real-life dad, creating a part that showcases the talented 21-year-old’s abilities as well. Frankly, the entire film is that rarest of gifts for its cast, providing virtually every character with a chance to play not only the present moment, but the complicated history they’ve established with Ben in the past, as well as whatever chance they see in the troubled young man’s future.

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