Toronto: Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges Are Back in Contention for Addiction Drama 'Ben Is Back'

Just one night after the Toronto International Film Festival hosted the the world premiere of Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy, the same fest hosted, at its Princess of Wales Theatre, the world premiere of another addiction drama, this one centered not on a good father and recovering son but on a good mother and recovering son: Peter Hedges' Ben Is Back, starring Oscar winner Julia Roberts and Hedges' own son, Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges. And, based on my reading of Ben Is Back, the big ovation it received in the room and the first reviews to hit the web later in the evening, it seems that this film, which Roadside Attractions will release on Dec. 7, has at least as strong a chance as Beautiful Boy at landing major acting nominations.

Peter Hedges is best known for writing the book What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and the film About a Boy, for which he received a best adapted screenplay Oscar nom. With Ben Is Back, he revisits a story structure he employed for another movie he wrote and directed, 2002's Pieces of April — namely, the reunion of a complicated family over a holiday — to tell the story of how a wealthy suburban family was nearly torn apart by one member's drug abuse. Ben (Lucas Hedges), who has been in recovery for 77 days, shows up unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, to the delight of his mother (Roberts) and her two young children with her second husband (Courtney B. Vance), but to the deep consternation of her second husband and the daughter (Kathryn Newton) she had with Ben's father. Ben, it turns out, has a long history of ruining special occasions — but, on this night, he insists he is a changed person and that he is there with his sponsor's blessing, and the family agrees to let him stay for 24 hours before taking him back to rehab. Naturally, the return of the prodigal son brings about all sorts of drama before the clock runs out.

Roberts, at 50, finds one of her best roles — and gives one of her strongest turns — as a mother who has been caused terrible pain by her son and knows he is a ticking time-bomb, but can't help but want to be with him and protect him. Lucas Hedges, at 21, demonstrates — as he did playing another delinquent, in Manchester by the Sea —  a remarkable ability to charm and endear, even while doing bad or stupid things. Theirs are two of the best performances of the year so far, and likely Oscar nominees — as is Peter Hedges' original screenplay, which starts out feeling like any number of others built around the home-for-the-holidays cliche, but reveals its complexity and depth as it progresses. For instance, what initially appears to be a gimmick involving the family dog leads to one of the film's most powerful sections, a sort of reverse-version of It's a Wonderful Life, showing Ben how different the world is not because he died, but because he lived, and helping Ben's mother to understand him better than ever before. It provides the actors with some of their best moments, including one together in a cemetery and another apart, when Ben's mother and one of his childhood friends turned fellow addict wind up together in a car.

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