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Beau is Afraid (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Ari Aster, US/UK/Finland, 2023, 179 mins

Cast:  Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan

Review by Carol Allen

Beau is Afraid is similar in theme and ambition to Stephen Spielberg’s AI, both being an odyssey undertaken by a vulnerable male personality with mother issues –  and both being very, very long.  

Spielberg though is a master storyteller. His protagonist’s journey and experiences hold our attention and empathy for two and a half hours.  Writer/director Ari Aster has not yet developed the skill to hold them for three and Beau actually ends up being a bit of a bore.  Joaquin Phoenix is a good actor and he really works hard as the title character in this one but Beau is neither interesting enough nor engaging enough to sustain interest for such a long period of time.

The basis of the plot, such as it is, deals with the character’s nightmare journey to go visit his mother – with whom, as I said, he has issues.   It turns into a nightmare experience, which appears to be experienced largely inside his head.  Everything you can think of – or not think of – goes wrong.   Or does it?   Or Is it all in the imagination of this dysfunctional, middle aged man, whom we first meet with his psychiatrist?  Big clue there.

For a start after a sleepless night plagued with delusions, he misses his flight.  Those delusions then drive him from his bath naked into the street, where he is run over by a middle aged couple (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane), who insist he stays with them while he recovers.  Though they do get a bit understandably stroppy when he encourages their teenage daughter to attempt suicide by swallowing a tin of blue paint – I am precising the complexities heavily here.

Beau’s odyssey to get back to mum continues on its weird way, until he finally finds her and is also reunited with his childhood sweetheart, now a sexy adult (Parker Posey).  But that doesn’t solve anything

To be fair to the film it does have some visually very effective and striking sequences, one in particular being a part animation section, which arises out of Beau encountering a group of hippies in the woods.  They conveniently have an open air theatre there.  Beau gets on stage into the show and finds himself transported to a wonderland, where much of his past and present is played out. 

And there are other striking moments, including the interesting idea right at the beginning of the film depicting birth from the baby’s point of view – which is presumably the moment when poor old Beau’s neurosis began.  Plus some strong supporting performances most particularly Lane and Ryan.  They make a good double act.

And although the recollected scenes of the child Beau with his young mum (Zoe Lister-Jones) don’t throw a lot of light on his condition, when Patti LuPone finally appears as his now older mother Mona, she makes it almost worth the wait.   She sets the screen buzzing.  Turns out mum might be dead, by the way, but that doesn’t deter her.

While visually very inventive, the problem is the story itself, told subjectively and confusingly from inside Beau’s head.  What is real and what is delusion?   The final scenes where Beau is on trial for the sins of his life, stay enigmatic to the end.   And by then do we care?  Sorry Beau but no.