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Movie Review

"What do you want for Christmas?" Ben asks his mom, Holly, from the phone at the front desk of the rehab center he's currently checked into.

He sounds so much better, Holly thinks as she presses her phone tightly to her ear. So much clearer, so much like … himself.

"All I want is you home," she replies, hoping that the words might be encouraging.

It's impossible, of course. But her statement is absolutely true. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all the years of addiction, misery, failure, theft, betrayal and emotional torment could be wiped away? Wouldn't it be wonderful to have Christmas together again? Like a normal family.

But it's not to be.

Then, a few days later, Ben shows up.

Holly is pulling into the driveway—bringing the kids back from a Christmas-play rehearsal at the church—and has to slam on the brake pedal. There's Ben, as if he's magically appeared out of the bright sunshine that Christmas Eve day.

"Mom, don't do it. Don't do it!" Holly's teen daughter, Ivy, says with an edge in her voice. "Don't open the door. Not again." Oh, how much meaning there is in that sentence.

But by now, it's too late. Holly is already out of the car and running to grab her boy. She hugs him. She kisses his face. It's a Christmas miracle. She looks back at Ivy with tears in her eyes, longing for a small sliver of shared joy. But the teen just shakes her head slightly, with nothing but slivers of ice in her gaze and a hard line to her jaw.

So what happened? Ben's sponsor said it was OK, he tells his mom. He's doing much better. "This is what you wanted, right? It's OK, isn't it?" he asks. Holly assures him it will be all right. If only just for Christmas. Just for a day. It will be all right.

"Then why are you gathering up all the prescription bottles?" Ivy asks once they make their way inside. "Why are you hiding your jewelry?"

Holly doesn't answer, her fingers and feet simply moving on their own out of habit. She just wants it to be good this time. She could never stop hoping for the best. She'd never give up on Ben. Never.

Ben is back! And at this point … that's all that matters.

Positive Elements

To a certain extent, Holly's unwavering love and support of her son is incredibly admirable. Ben's addiction to prescription painkillers has taken a terrible, painful toll on his family, but Holly's love has never wavered.

That's not to suggest that she's oblivious to the past, however. She isn't. From the moment Ben walks back into their lives again—in a home and in a town full of triggers and temptations to relapse—Holly keeps a close eye on him and works to keep him on the straight and narrow. And when he begins to slip, she works desperately to pull him back, crying out, "I will not leave you!"

Despite Holly's fiercely protective intentions, though, the film realistically suggests that even the biggest heart and the most watchful eye can't keep someone else's addiction in total check. "We can't save an addict," another mother whose daughter overdosed tells Holly. "But you hate yourself if you don't try."

Ben, who seems to be earnestly trying to get healthy once more, recognizes his own deeply flawed nature as well. "You can't trust an addict," he tells his mom, adding that all they do is lie. That said, Ben does try to do the right thing by his family and to right a wrong from his past.

Spiritual Content

Ivy and her two younger siblings perform in a Nativity play at church. Ivy sings a solo in the Christmas carol "O Holy Night." It's obvious, however, that none of them are regular church attenders: When Holly playfully threatens the youngsters with going to church every Sunday, they cry out, "No!"

We see several plastic Nativity scenes set up in a residential neighborhood. Ben goes to a Substance Abusers support meeting at a local church.

Sexual Content

At Ben's support group meeting, he jokes about being able to be aroused again since getting clean. He also quips about a second grade teacher, "She was always hot." On a more serious note, Ben talks to another former teacher, a guy who used to give the young man Oxycodone in exchange for sexual favors.

Violent Content

It could be argued that this whole film is a representation of the emotional violence that drug addicts perpetrate upon the ones who love them. And the film also displays the violent ways that addictive substances can physically torment, change and sometimes even kill addicts themselves.

An angry parent smashes a car window and thumps on the hood of the vehicle with a club. A former heroin client punches Ben in the face. Someone attempts suicide (a choice that the movie doesn't glorify).

Crude or Profane Language

Some 30 f-words and a dozen s-words join several uses of "a--hole." God's name is misused 10 times, five times in combination with "d--n."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Holly pulls all the prescription drugs out of her bathroom cabinet and hides them away. She also asks Ben to urinate in a cup to verify that he hasn't been using drugs. Ben puffs regularly on an e-cig vape pen as a sort of tobacco pacifier.

We learn that Ben was a drug dealer at one point earlier in his life, which helped to pay for his own habit. We see several people whose lives were destroyed because of Ben and hear of a teen girl who died because he got her hooked on the heroin he was pushing. At an AA meeting, a young woman offers to get high with Ben (who was her former dealer) one last time before getting clean.

[Spoiler Warning] Ben acts as a drug mule for a local dealer as payback for what he owed the man. Afterward, that dealer offers Ben a dose of a packaged opioid. Ben attempts suicide by overdosing on the substance, but Holly finds him and administers an overdose-reversal drug.

Other Negative Elements

Holly approaches an elderly former doctor of Ben's, the man who first gave her son his first opioid prescription years before. The man now has severe Alzheimer's disease, but when his guardian steps away Holly snarls, "I hope you die a horrible death!" in the doctor's face.


“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him." —Luke 15:20

Watching Ben Is Back, it's hard not to think of a certain biblical story about a lost child and a loving parent. Only in this case, it's a mother who runs, clings to and fights for her wayward, addicted prodigal. And actress Julia Roberts conveys this woman's fervent passion, unceasing hope and unrelenting love impressively.

However, this film is not so much about the stuff of returns and redemption as it is a cautionary tale about all the ways addiction corrupts and destroys. Ben Is Back clearly exclaims that addiction singes everything and everyone in an addict's orbit.

That truth makes this film emotionally moving, and maybe even … important. But it doesn't make it easy to sit through. Add in an abundance of foul language, and you've got a movie that's difficult to welcome in with open arms.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

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Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range





Julia Roberts as Holly Burns; Lucas Hedges as Ben Burns; Courtney B. Vance as Neal Burns; Kathryn Newton as Ivy Burns; Mia Fowler as Lacey; Jakari Fraser as Liam


Peter Hedges ( )


LD Entertainment



Record Label



In Theaters

December 7, 2018

On Video

March 5, 2019

Year Published



Bob Hoose

Content Caution

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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