‘Beau is Afraid’ Review: a Flawed but Intriguing Portrait of Fear and Family
3/5 phone calls from your mom
I’m an Ari Aster fan, so after Hereditary and Midsommar, I had high hopes about his latest venture, Beau is Afraid. However, although there’s plenty to love about this movie, it might leave you wishing that someone had reined him in.
Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) is burdened with a quest: he has to go home to see his mother. That quest is fraught, though. As his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) puts it in an early scene, “If you were thirsty, and there was a well that made you sick in the past, would you go back to drink from that same well?” Beau’s relationship with his mother is poisonous, but it’s the only sustenance he knows.
Beau tries to go home, but he gets stuck again and again, leading to a wild, absurdist picaresque through a nightmarish landscape. Beau’s world may look like modern day America, but it’s also a topsy-turvy land of poisonous spiders, serial killers, and cheerfully sinister suburban families.
If you love stories told in dream logic, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled or the films of Michel Gondry, then Beau is Afraid will speak your language. Throughout the movie, Beau fights through relentless obstacles while disembodied voices bark orders at him over the phone. He’s aided by secret boons and hidden messages. His fear is the driving force of the narrative, with events exploding out of a feverish haze of middle class paranoia. In Beau’s world, everyone is an enemy and everything is dangerous, from the tattooed man hanging out on his street to the minefield of his own body.
The biggest disappointment in the film its clichés. Every member of the suburban family that takes Beau in is popping pills, because that’s what suburban families do. Beau’s mom Mona (Patti LuPone) is a caricature of a monstrous, emasculating Jewish mother, with the worst of Sophie Portnoy and Sheila Broflovski rolled into one. I get that the film is about Beau’s overblown fears, I really do, but a stereotype is a stereotype. As a Jewish mother myself, the film made me want to curl into a ball and take up as little space in the world as possible, lest I get called “pushy” just for opening my mouth.
There are other problems with the movie, too, the biggest of which is that it’s just too damn long. The most compelling aspect of the film, despite its problems, is Beau’s broken relationship with his mother and his angst around starting a family of his own, but that story gets buried under the weight of countless tangents and diversions. You get the feeling that Aster could have made two or three tight, engrossing psychological portraits instead of one bloated one.
However, Beau is Afraid does have some very cool moments, including a beautiful animated sequence and some truly funny dark comedy. Some gags are over the top; others are so subtle that you might not even spot them during a first viewing. This film rewards moviegoers who have a keen eye for detail and the patience for a jigsaw puzzle of a story.
You might find that it’s hard to get a handle on Beau’s character, since he’s a nebbish with little motivation and even less agency. However, it’s hard to see Beau in this film for the same reason that it’s hard for a fish to see the ocean. In Beau is Afraid, Beau is the world and the world is Beau, and as he sloshes around in the turmoil of his own subconscious, you may recognize yourself in his many fears.
Beau is Afraid comes out in theaters on April 21.
(featured image: A24)
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