Beau is Afraid

“Beau is Afraid”

Artists often use their work as an outlet to wrestle with their personal demons and the more haunted corners of their psyche, and “Beau is Afraid” is like a long, distressing therapy session for writer-director Ari Aster. His film about a fortysomething paranoid man named Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) who embarks on an epic odyssey to get home to his mother (Patti LuPone) is self-indulgent to a fault. But despite the project’s missteps, audiences are fortunate that Aster has so willingly and openly shared his decades-long emotional trauma through his art in this bold, visionary, and highly divisive film that is absolutely unforgettable.

This oedipal journey (with a bloated run time of 3 hours) is one long, bizarre expression of a man with severe, debilitating mommy issues. Viewers who didn’t grow up with one of those picture-perfect Hollywood mothers that has long been idealized by popular culture will find much that will resonate, as Aster doesn’t hold back in his critique of childhood trauma and emotional abuse. He captures what it’s like to be scarred for life and molded in a way that guilt and shame are used as weapons well into adulthood. Beau is a barely functioning adult with a very low self-worth because of his mother’s narcissism and toxic parenting, and he’s still tortured by her on a daily basis. Even for those of us lucky to have great moms (and I am fortunate that I can raise my own hand here), Beau’s pain will universally resonate.

The first half of the film is by far the best, as Aster creates a richly detailed, nightmarish world that feels like a version of a highly twisted and depraved Wes Anderson movie. Pay attention to everything in the background, as eagle-eyed viewers will be rewarded with some of the film’s most inspired gags. The dark humor is pitch black and wickedly funny, which sets the tone as a sort of uncomfortable yet whimsical comedy. It’s when Beau ventures away from his squalid apartment, out of the charming home of two strangers (the terrific Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane), and into a forest that it starts to feel like a different movie. The story becomes a discordant mess and loses its footing, especially as the myriad “WTF?!” moments pile up at a ferocious pace.

The story is simple but the execution is complex. Aster is dealing with some serious personal issues here, and his expression is (understandably) heavy-handed at times. His film takes a deep dive into paranoia, surrealism, and various forms of psychosis, all tied together by the ways narcissistic mothers manipulate and damage their sons. There is so much to unpack that repeated viewings would be necessary to catch it all.

This isn’t an easy-to-love crowd pleaser. It’s not something that is highly accessible nor effortless to watch. It’s a film that will most certainly alienate as many viewers as it embraces. That’s part what makes it so intriguing.

“Beau is Afraid” is a wonderfully weird, polarizing film that stretches the outer limits of neurotic self-indulgence. It’s both too abstract yet packed with clunky metaphors and overt symbolism, but it strikes gold and finds success more often than not.

By: Louisa Moore

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