A family drama is not unusual fodder for a holiday big screen story, but add elements of a suspense thriller by way of drug addiction, then the ante rises for a holiday release. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Peter Hedges took on the challenge, tapping his son, Lucas Hedges, as the son struggling with addiction, while his mother, played by Julia Roberts, fights to help him overcome his disease.

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Being touched by addiction is not foreign to the senior Hedges, who said that he was looking for ways to, “tell more urgent and authentic stories,” ahead of writing Ben Is Back, which opens in theaters December 7.

“I’ve had a relative, a friend and a fellow actor overdose,” said the filmmaker at Saturday’s Contenders event when speaking with Deadline’s Pete Hammond. “As I researched the [epidemic], it seemed impossible to cover [broadly]. But the more I researched, the more I thought I could talk about the epidemic through the story about one family.”

Enter Lucas Hedges as Ben, a son who unexpectedly returns to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve. Ben’s mom, Holly (Julia Roberts), is relieved and welcoming but wary of her son’s drug addiction. Over a turbulent 24 hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother’s undying love gets put to the test as Holly does everything in her power to keep Ben clean.

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Traversing fear, intensity and even humorous moments, Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts run the gamut of emotions on screen. Though the actor, who is currently on Broadway and also stars in Boy Erased which opened earlier this fall, said it “meant a lot” to work with Roberts, he said the “most pressing thing” was working with his dad.

“I knew everything would work out with Julia, but I wasn’t as sure about my dad he said to laughs from the audience at the DGA Theater in Midtown. “When I read this script, I had a feeling that ‘I have to do this,’” he said sitting next to his father on stage. “It occurred to me that having my dad could be my greatest strength.” 

He added to more laughs: “It’s rare that you have the unconditional love of a director.”

Peter Hedges admitted that he doesn’t “always get what he wants” when making movies, but was grateful he triumphed in persuading Julia Roberts to take the role of Holly. 

“I knew she’d just crush it,” said the director. “She and Lucas were remarkable together. It was an honor to watch these two and the other cast members.”

Concluding the senior Hedges noted: “That I got to work with my favorite movie star [Julia] and my favorite actor who I’m the father of — I’m a lucky man.”