Beau is Afraid ★★½

“Guilty”, Beau’s therapist writes in his notepad. The single word carries a load of meaning behind it, referring to how Beau feels regarding his relationship with his mother but also as a comic oversimplification of the situation on hand. This flippant humor finds itself nicely at home within Beau is Afraid. Beau is to travel home to visit his mother, and we read a flurry of emotions on his face while discussing the topic with his therapist.

MV5BZTVmYWQ1OTMtZTE4ZS00NWJhLThjMzUtYTY4M2MyMGZmODVmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODk4OTc3MTY@._V1_Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), as a man who is perpetually anxious, sees a therapist as a means of confronting his anxiety, but even this has its challenges. When the therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) prescribes Beau with medication that requires water to be consumed while taking it, Beau finds that the water at his place has stopped. A quick Google search reveals that Beau should be very afraid if he can’t find water.. He could even die.

Director Ari Aster uses the first part of his film as Beau struggles to begin his journey home to provide social commentary. We see a critique of over-medication as Beau’s struggle with finding water for his pills evokes the very anxiety the pills are supposed to combat while a quick journey outside his apartment places Beau in peril. Beau lives in a crime-ridden area, and Aster uses Beau’s fear of his surroundings to great effect as he escalates tension. Beau even finds himself at gunpoint after running to the police for help, the police officer panicking and escalating the situation threatening Beau that he will shoot. These opening scenes of Beau is Afraid are a cacophony of chaos and provide ample explanation why Beau is, in fact, afraid.

As the third film from Ari Aster, Beau is Afraid shows us a different side of Aster’s filmmaking. While Hereditary and Midsommar can be firmly classified as horror films, Beau is Afraid is more preoccupied with the surreal and family drama. The film takes us away from the bustling city and into the wilderness where Beau encounters a traveling theatre troupe whose play evokes a deep sense of familiarity for Beau in its story. Beau’s journey to visit his mother becomes akin to an epic, and the strange experiences Beau faces underline his resilience to make it home.

Where Beau is Afraid falters is within the second act of its story. After being hit by a car, Beau is nursed back to health by a family whose father is a surgeon. Their home is a paradise compared to Beau’s cramped apartment, but the longer he stays, the more uneasy he starts to feel as he notices something sinister is at play. Beau’s stay with the family occurs near the beginning of the film, and Aster remains committed to delivering something as unsettling as Beau is Afraid’s opening scenes. This ultimately backfires however, as once we understand the meaning behind the strange occurrences at the family, Beau’s stay there loses its significance. Aster toys with the idea of free will versus determination here, but it doesn’t lead to anything fruitful. Once Beau leaves the family, his stay there becomes quickly forgotten as Beau’s relationship with his mother again takes the forefront.

Joaquin Phoenix is perhaps the best suited actor for delivering an anxiety-ridden performance and his dour expressions through Beau is Afraid lend the film great juxtaposition to its comedic elements. What Beau goes through is at times hilarious, but Phoenix’s pained expressions and the laborious way he carries himself as Beau challenge us to let out more than a single laugh. Jewish family stereotypes are at play as well, but good luck finding humor for more than a minute in the serious, exhaustive way that Aster portrays Beau’s family. In a tongue-in-cheek way however, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that these stereotypes and attitudes have had a disastrous impact on Beau’s upbringing.

What Beau is Afraid leads to is a plea from Aster for us to be less awful to each other. Aster takes an unusual means to arrive at this message, but it’s part of what makes his films singular to him. When empathy takes a backseat to judgment and ego, we become closed-off to everyone else and social interaction becomes a living nightmare. Aster’s film is released at an apt time for American audiences – numerous headlines have been published these past few weeks of people getting killed in their own driveways, kids being shot while playing in their yards – and demonstrates that Aster doesn’t need to take us to a Swedish commune in order to show us something unsettling. He can do so perfectly well at home.

Originally a music critic, Alex began his work with film criticism after watching the films of Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman for the first time. From these films, Alex realized that there was much more artistry and depth to filmmaking than he had previously thought. His favorite contemporary directors include Michael Haneke, Paul Thomas Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Terrence Malick.

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