The plot of the film follows Ben Burns (Hedges), who returns home on the eve of Christmas. It turns out that he left the rehabilitation center where he is recovering from drugs prematurely, in order to visit his family. His mother Holly (Julia Roberts) is looking forward to her son’s return, but it soon turns out that he is still in great danger. A race against time will follow, which may change their lives…
The day before yesterday I wrote about the film Beautiful Boy, which follows a similar theme of family drama with teenage addiction. Here the drama is raised to a higher level, almost right at the beginning, when Ben unexpectedly appears in front of the house. His arrival determines the different dynamics of the relationship between the housemates. The mother is delighted because she did not expect her Christmas wish to come true, but the sister and stepfather are rightly suspicious that Ben is bringing some trouble with him for the umpteenth time. Both Holly and Ben have an internal conflict – she is both happy to see her son, but also worried about her family, while he carries the burden of guilt and lies while pretending that everything is fine.
Ben insists he’s only staying over Christmas, that his sponsor has approved the visit, and that he won’t be using drugs. His mother Holly has a few ground rules, which include drug testing and not leaving her sight. Their relationship, defined by deep distrust, is what the further flow of the narrative revolves around. There is a clear level of vulnerability in Holly’s determination and sternness, not because of Ben’s potential problems, but because behind her decisions lies a mother’s care and love.
Ben is the source of that vulnerability and he’s aware of it, and he seems quite capable of manipulating it to his advantage. Holly seems strong, but she will trust her son, for the simple reason that she doesn’t want to accept the other option. Ben seems to have changed, but as the story progresses, we learn that this could be a lie. This establishes three distinct entities within the film – between mother and son, between Holly and the rest of her family, and between Ben and the tails of his past.
I’m of the opinion that Peter Hedges was wrong not to fully believe this diverse family dynamic, because in the second part the film becomes a kind of thriller. After a fairly strong start, the story begins to lose its effect when it expands outside the family home, unnecessarily increasing the effect of the already fairly steady drama. I believe that the author intended to give the narrative an active form, but in this way it loses focus on the dynamics between the characters. Because of this, characters who had potential, like Nilo or Yves, become nothing more than one-dimensional worried housemates.
Lucas Hedges, like Timothée Chalamet, is one of the best young actors, as seen in the films Manchester by the Sea, Boy Erased and Three Billboards. His performance, along with the excellent Julia Roberts, is strong enough to provide more than enough tension to the mother-son relationship, which is the driving force of the film. As for the supporting roles played by Courtney B. Vance and Kathryn Newton, they are more than good enough to be pushed into the background.