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Beau Is Afraid

“Guilt.” Therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson)

You do not have to be Jewish to have deep-seated guilt about your mother, as Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) does in Ari Aster’s phantasmagorical, amusing, and overwrought Beau Is Afraid. Aster, in Charlie-Kaufman confessional style, treats us to multiple scenes wildly imagined or lived, in which schlemiel Beau finds himself applying his mother’s highly-accomplished torture of the mind to homely activities like enduring the onslaughts of his small NYC world, where naked wild men and murderers threaten any peace a small life could afford.

After an ill-fated attempt amid that urban chaos to visit his mother, she dies before he can overcome robbery and insanity. The rest of the 179 min include set pieces to show where Beau fits in nowhere, mostly because of his mother’s specter, ill fate, and his downright laziness. Phoenix has a dull affect here where he’s mostly beset upon while having done nothing more deserving of torture than just thinking about how he couldn’t get to mom before she died, or murder her.

If I have made little sense, then so be it—and needs to be under Aster’s spell to feel how he has caught our collective guilts about our moms. He overdoes the impressionism at times but catches the trauma of child-like wonder at the power of motherhood, and for Jewish boys, the terror, or just plain being overwhelmed by the dangerous life of the big city. Tracking through Manhattan is a journey over dead bodies and threatening suicides, a landscape Bruegel would have approved.

Beau Is Afraid is like Aster’s dark comedies Hereditary and Midsommar, where individuals have little control over their own lives, much less their relationships with their mothers. It’s unlikely to win over anyone but the most patient cinephile, who will hoot over the excess and give thumbs up for an artist who can depict our deepest personal fears.

Production company A24 earns its oft-called “A24 Horror” name.

Beau Is Afraid

Director: Ari Aster (Midsommar)

Screenplay: Aster

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Her, Walk the Line)

Run Time: 2h 59m

Rating: R

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and hosts Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM. Contact him at

John DeSando holds a BA from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in English from The University of Arizona. He served several universities as a professor, dean, and academic vice president. He has been producing and broadcasting as a film critic on It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics for more than two decades. DeSando received the Los Angeles Press Club's first-place honors for national entertainment journalism.