‘Beau is Afraid’ – Review

While it’s admirable to see a filmmaker such as Aster take such a big swing with a film like Beau is Afraid, it feels abrasive, loud and somehow, pointless. There are great bits sprinkled throughout (including every single thing Patti LuPone does), however, the film ultimately feels like a waste of time to just wonder what did Ari Aster’s mom do to him?

Beau Is Afraid opens on a black screen, with the stifled sounds of screaming and overlapping conversations between people we can’t see. As flickering lights pierce through the screen, it becomes evident that we’re in a birth canal as seen from the perspective of a child about to be born, who is soon pushed out into a hospital room where the baby is immediately overwhelmed with the world they’re forced into. The uneasy and paralyzing introduction is fit for introducing us to Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), who is overmedicated, haunted by mommy issues, and overrun by his anxiety and paranoia. Opening the film with the forced separation of a mother and child is perfect for the story of Bea: Beau struggles with feeling a sense of disappointment and guilt over his separation from his mother. Beau is, was, and apparently always will be, afraid.

We begin the story with a therapy session with Beau and his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) as Beau is preparing for a visit to see his mother, Mona Wassermann (Patti LuPone). The therapist insinuates that the relationship between the mother and son is estranged. However, Beau brushes off his trepidations, expressing happiness at being able to see his mother. His therapist attempts to give him the psychological tools as well as new medications to help Beau with his crippling anxieties over the prospect of traveling and his mother, who may or may not be the source of his conditions. 

Upon leaving therapy, we see the world Beau lives in. While it is ‘present day,’ it’s uncertain if it’s our present day as Beau’s world unfolds before us. It’s also unclear what is a projected, exaggerated figments of Beau’s anxieties and fears, as his journey just back to his apartment is through an almost apocalyptic neighborhood. Working with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster frames much of the pandemonium in the streets simply in the background of wide shots. The streets are filled with a bizarre collection of suspicious people, with different types of brutal violence taking place everywhere the eye can see, to crazy businesses, to pornographic images in graffiti all over. And don’t forget the naked serial killer stabbing strangers on the loose and a deadly spider loose in Beau’s apartment building. The design of Beau’s neighborhood and decrepit apartment (from production designer Fiona Crombie) is a great story telling device to truly place the audience in Beau’s mindset as this overwhelming environment highlights Beau’s inability to ignore his fears of day-to-day life, repulsion of sex, and how ultimately, he’s still an afraid child unable to care for himself. 

After a series of unfortunate mishaps on his journey home, including a noisy neighbor, a medication misuse, a robbery, and eventually getting locked out of his apartment building, Beau is unable to get to the airport on time for his flight. Beau dreads calling his mother with the news, and when he finally does, she takes this as an act against her by her son, another delay tactic rather than an actual reason he is unable to make it to the airport on time. Upon learning some tragic news, Beau is determined to get to his mother, which requires much more interaction with the outside world he fears. 

Although the film is entirely from Beau’s perspective, we are still able to see Beau has pretty substantial issues and isn’t the most stable narrative presence. Spending three hours in the mindset of Beau is exhausting, and that’s exactly what Aster intended. The film isn’t exploring violence or terrors that hide in plain sight like he has in his past films; in Beau is Afraid, all of the horrors are exposed for the audience to see and experience. Our titular character isn’t exactly comforting to find solace in or even root for at times. While films with unlikable characters are often more thrilling to watch, with Beau is Afraid, the protagonist is somehow not likable or dislikable, he’s just not engaging with his lack of ambition and overall purpose narratively. The camera is angled at times to make Beau look small to convey to the audience just how small Beau feels

Phoenix’s natural charisma and obvious commitment to the role should make Beau a character that audiences ultimately don’t mind spending time with, but Beau’s point-of-view proves to be a claustrophobic, depressing, and exhausting place to spend three hours. The film is meant to be a sort of odyssey but eventually, it becomes a chore. The film is anchored by two major events and uses flashbacks to Beau as a teenager (Armen Nahapetian). These flashbacks give us glimpses into his developing idiosyncrasies and the budding sexuality that’s stifled by his controlling, domineering mother. The majority of the film takes place in four locations that are jarringly different settings yet the same ominous vibes. 

Both of Ari Aster’s previous feature length films, Hereditary and Midsommar, use a family tragedy as the spark that ignites terror. With Aster’s most ambitious film to date, Beau Is Afraid, the writer/director now explores how tragedy is birthed by, well, birth itself. While many films explore the trauma of childbirth from a mother’s perspective, very few explore how violent the experience may be for the child. Perhaps because the experience of childbirth is far more traumatic for those who deliver the child (as someone who has given birth, I can confirm). While the film walks a line of ‘what is reality and what is a figment of Beau’s imagination’ throughout its lengthy runtime, it is never truly that far removed from reality to let the fantasy aspects feel earned. Beau Is Afraid starts at full speed from the opening scene and then never slows down for the rest of the three-hour runtime. The film is purposefully meant to be taking you inside an ongoing crisis of a man, but there’s just no pay off. Bad trip films can be enjoyable or provide some sort of an insight, but to spend three hours exploring a grown man having mommy issues feels unbearable.

While it’s admirable to see a filmmaker such as Aster take such a big swing with a film like Beau is Afraid, it feels abrasive, loud and somehow, pointless. There are great bits sprinkled throughout (including every single thing Patti LuPone does), however, the film ultimately feels like a waste of time to just wonder what did Ari Aster’s mom do to him?

Grade: C

Oscars Prospects:
Likely: None
Should be Considered: None

Release Date: April 21, 2023
Where to Watch: In Theaters

Kenzie Vanunu
she/her @kenzvanunu
Lives in LA with her husband, daughter and dog. Misses Arclight, loves iced vanilla coffees.
Favorite Director: Darren Aronofsky
Sign: Capricorn

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