For about three minutes at the start, Peter Hedges' age-of-opioids melodrama Ben Is Back offers a sight that has for too long been absent from our screens. Here's Julia Roberts beaming. Then, her movie star duties discharged, Roberts spends the next 100 minutes showing us everything else she can do -- and what a shrewd and scrupulous actor she has become. With the quickest blink or nervy glance, she communicates both what her character, an ordinary woman named Holly Burns, has convinced everyone around her to think she's feeling but also all of her secret doubts, fury and anguish.
The story finds her Holly surprised just before Christmas by the arrival of her teenage son Ben (Lucas Hedges), an addict, 77 days clean, out from his rehab clinic early by his own choice. Roberts reveals Holly's prickly competing emotions: She's defensive about what Neal (Courtney B. Vance), her second husband and the father of her youngest child, will make of Ben's latest probable screwup. And she's convinced, thanks to hard experience, that Ben will find a way to relapse.
This melodrama's superior first half has the aching texture of observed life, with mother and son locked in a complex battle of wills. Holly believes she can tough-love him through the day -- that addiction can be conquered by extreme parenting. Like Roberts, Hedges excels at a weaponized annoyance, at barking out a caustic truth and then making it clear that he's swallowing back more where that came from.
The filmmakers and the cast capture the pained uncertainty of loving an addict. Ben Is Back's pained heart is a flinty, confident Julia Roberts character realizing at last that there are some problems she can't conquer.