First Hit: Extremely well-acted story based on 24 hours of a mother and her addicted son’s return for the holidays.
I saw this film in two ways. The first and probably as intended; Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) believes he’s doing well enough in his sobriety that he decides to come home and see his family. He believes this because he’s living in a sober halfway house, and has a sponsor.
The second came to me after Ben gives his mom Holly (Julia Roberts) and impassioned speech about how she doesn’t know him, he’s already lied to her about how his got ahold of some drugs. This view spawned a thought that his visit home was to find the hidden stash in the attic and he just really wanted to get high. The support for this is that he’s the one that suggested he go into the attic to get their old childhood decorations. An addict knows where their drugs are hidden.
At the end of the film I thought of this film in both views and even discussed these with my wife prior to writing this review – something I usually don’t do. One view of the film allows, at some level, Ben and even Holly to be victims of the addiction. The other view is reflective of how manipulative and devious the addict can be when they decide they are following a path to reuse.
Now, I suspect the film’s intention is not my second view, but that I can plausibly come up with this second view also tells me just how deep and reflective this film is about the story of a mom willing to do anything to save her son from his addiction, let alone the power of addiction.
Her anger towards the doctor who originally prescribed pain killers to her son because of an injury shows up at a food court in a shopping mall. That the doctor, now debilitated himself because of Dementia or Alzheimer’s, made no difference to Holly, she laid into him.
Briefly the story is that Ben decides on his own (think maybe story version 2), against his sponsor’s support, to come home for Christmas. His young step siblings, his step-father Neal Beeby (Courtney B. Vance), and his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) are very wary of his just showing up at their front door. They’re afraid of the stealing, lying, and disruption of Christmas because of their past experience.
Holly is overjoyed. She says she’s being cautious, but her heart is all in – Ben is Back.
There are tense moments throughout, but it is highlighted by the family’s return from the church play where Ivy sang lead and the step kids were an angel and lamb. Their home has been broken into and what is stolen is their dog Ponce. The dog is a family favorite and in-fact Ponce saved Ben from overdosing a couple of years earlier.
The people who took Ponce are trying to get Ben to visit them. This drug distributor was someone Ben use to work for as a dealer, but Ben also owes them a lot of money. With Ponce gone, the rest of the film is about Holly and Ben trying to find Ponce and bring him home.
As Ben takes charge of their search, he ends up doing one last act to get his family’s dog back. The price though is that he knows he’s wasn’t ready to visit the family and has now put everyone in jeopardy.
Many of the scenes were extremely well done. The bold family discussion about why Ben came back and Ivy feeling strong enough to voice her objection to Ben’s presence although she loves him dearly. The phone calls between Neal and Holly were both fraught and supportive of the dynamics they found themselves in with Ben’s return. The conversations in the car between Ben and Holly were powerful. The AA meeting Ben attends with Holly, spot on.
Roberts is outstanding as Holly. I love how well Julia Roberts can throw herself into a role and have the audience believe. I fully believed she was Holly. Hedges was sublime in this role. He’s had a great year with roles and to end with this one was perfect. I believed his addiction through his looks, his words, and his actions. His willingness to leave his mom alone at a gas station stop, told the story. Newton was powerfully excellent. Her fear of her brother’s actions and addiction were palpable. Vance was excellent as the caring, strong, and supportive stepfather. Peter Hedges, father of Lucas, both wrote and directed this story. His singular vision and use of powerfully strong actors to make the story come alive indicated his commitment to shine a light on both our opioid epidemic and our addictive culture.
Overall: This film is a powerful representative of what can happen to a family when addiction is present by one of its members. It is also a story of devotion of a mother’s love for her first-born son.