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  • Fiona Green

Is it just Beau who's afraid?

Warning: spoilers ahead!

Well, count on A24 Films to deliver something wacky. First Midsommmar, now this.

(Solidarity, sisters.)

(I kid. A24’s wild productions are always a joy, and my husband and I will drop everything including the kitchen sink to go see the studio’s latest release in theaters.)

Is Beau Is Afraid the weirdest A24 film yet? I don’t know if I’d go that far, mainly due to the existence of Swiss Army Man. It’s delivering a lot of a different kind of weird, though.

Beau Is Afraid just seems…off…from the beginning, but in such a way that you can’t put your finger on it. The disorienting first scene – which turns out to be Beau’s birth from his own perspective – plops you in the midst of a relatively normal interaction between Beau and his therapist. Then, having lulled you into a false sense of security, the film cuts to a montage of weird, but not totally implausible events, and offers little context along the way. Beau gets chased down the street by a vaguely threatening man, for example, before finding a warning about an escaped and very lethal spider taped to his apartment door. Why? You tell me.

The movie maintains its ‘weird, but not implausible’ tone as the off-kilter plot unfolds. The audience’s resulting disorientation seems to be in service of a core message: “I’m messed up, and it’s all my mother’s fault!”

Indeed, as we sat, stunned, watching the end-credits roll, my husband and I agreed that director Ari Aster cannot possibly have a good relationship with his mother. Or, if he did, his work on Beau Is Afraid has ruined it by now.

Our main man Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) clearly suffers from a Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque tendency to perpetuate his own doom. And, his doom targets his relationship with his mother so exclusively, it almost seems orchestrated (and, guess what, it is!).

When Beau leaves his keys unattended in his apartment door for just ten seconds they vanish, causing him to miss the flight which he was going to take to visit his mother. Or what about the time when Beau ventures across the street to buy a bottle of water, and he has a run-in with the neighborhood’s resident naked man, who is feeling homicidal today? Beau was supposed to leave town to see to his mother’s funeral arrangements that day, but, well, that’s tough to do when you’re hospitalized with stab wounds.

The pattern continues, and Beau’s guilt mounts as delay after delay keeps him from his filial duties. His mother and her allies shame him after each failure.

By the end of the film, each of these roadblocks is revealed to be part of a cruel farce staged by Beau's mother to test his devotion. Beau is literally put on trial for his shortcomings, and any explanations he provides are scoffed at by the jury. Beau is ruled a ‘bad son,’ and he is blown up as punishment for his actions.

Taken at face value, the film is saying plenty as a portrait of an unhealthy mother-son relationship. Beau is tethered to his mother’s impossibly high standards and he is stunted by her expectations.

However, I want to consider the possibility that Beau Is Afraid is making a wider commentary.

I’ve seen a theory circulating that boys, everywhere, are in crisis. I won’t go into too much detail about it here, but the gist is that guidelines abound for raising strong, empowered girls, but we don’t know how to raise respectful, yet successful boys. We know what to tell boys not to be, but what should they be instead?

(Okay, well, we know they shouldn't be saying this nonsense.)

I’m not here to comment on the validity of this theory, although I do think it has interesting applications to the epidemic of male-perpetrated violence we’re seeing in America. But, I do think that Beau Is Afraid could be here to comment on this theory.

The film presents several versions of ‘men in crisis.’ At its center is Beau, trapped in substandard living conditions and a toxic relationship with his mother. However, there’s also the corrupt therapist who betrays his patients’ trust for money. There are the seemingly homeless men on Beau’s street with few resources. There is a veteran haunted by his military service, sedated by drugs and lashing out with physical violence. You get the idea.

This film is packed to the gills with male characters who are lost. Who are left to make nothing but bad choices. Who are afraid.

Many of the female characters, by contrast, are conniving, or at least more powerful than the male characters. This is something I don’t love about the film, and, to be honest, I’m unsure what sort of commentary it’s meant to make. Is it saying women are crowding men out of opportunities? Or holding them to impossible standards? I really can’t say.

But, putting that debate aside, what is the rest of the film trying to communicate?

I’ll return to the final scene, in which Beau is judged by a large ‘jury’ of individuals who are probably meant to represent society. They ridicule him – mercilessly – when he claims that he had no control over the circumstances which caused him to miss his mother’s staged funeral (Yes, staged. If you have questions, just watch the movie).

The thing is, we (the audience) know that Beau has no choice but to ‘fail’ as a son. We watch as his best intentions are thwarted, again and again. He is waylaid by injuries, by theft, and by a bizarre theater troupe he stumbled upon in the middle of the woods. His mother’s expectations are literally impossible for him to meet.

(As you can see, middle-of-the-woods theater productions

have astonishingly high production value.)

The film probably wants us to conclude that if men are in crisis, the cause is circumstantial. The cause is manipulative, loveless relationships. It is a reliance on medication instead of recovery and communication. It is a lack of resources and opportunity. Beau Is Afraid goes on to suggest we, as a society, are too quick to judge men who are in crisis if their failures are inevitable.

It’s an interesting theory. It’s a divisive theory. And, it’s just the type of theory A24 Films would produce for our consideration – under many layers of weirdness, of course.


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