top of page

Beau is Afraid, AKA 40-Year-Old Virgin for A24 Nerds with Mommy Issues

(light spoilers follow, as well as references to incest, violence, and sexual abuse)

When I was a high schooler who’d just seen the horrific and thrilling 2018 film Hereditary, I immediately poured through the internet to watch writer and director Ari Aster’s entire collection of published short films. On a sketchy Vimeo page, I watched 2011’s Beau. In this short, a man leaving his apartment to visit his mother is horrified to discover that his keys have been stolen from the door. This incredibly simple, yet effective premise has now transformed into A24’s most expensive production and resulted in the 3-hour epic, Beau is Afraid. Beau is Afraid is a proudly self-indulgent and absurdist tale of an anxious man traveling to his controlling mother. While overstuffed and openly ridiculous, fans of Aster’s previous work and those in search of an oedipal spectacle will likely enjoy A24’s newest film.

Littered with accoladed actors, this new film from the director of Midsommar, Ari Aster, explores the anxiety-inducing environment of 47-year-old Beau (played by Joaquin Phoenix) on a journey to visit his mother (Patti LuPone). Larger in scale than his previous works, Beau is Afraid feels like a classical odyssey and poses the question, what if 40 Year Old Virgin had more beheadings? While I’ve received skepticism from friends for this comparison, Aster himself has called the film a comedy. And while drastic tonal contrasts might make an audience hesitant, opportunities for laughter are frequent. Sure, this film has all the hallmarks of an Aster movie: beheadings, falling off cliffs onto rocks, uncomfortable yet humorous male nudity, mothers with badass monologues, etc. However, other elements like fecal smoothies, drug sequences, vulgar puns, enraged teenage girls, and even certain cast members feel straight out of a Judd Apatow flick. Even the first wordless appearance from Nathan Lane’s Roger prompted serious laughs from the two screenings I attended. Additionally, Beau is Afraid features a hilarious and barely visible cameo that rivals any MCU reveal.

Although the film is confidently self-indulgent and may overstay its welcome at a 179-minute runtime (its animated sequence is gorgeously crafted by Cristobal Leon and Joaquin Cosiña but is noticeably lengthy at 20 minutes), its first hour is particularly impressive. After an immediately stressful pre-title sequence, we are thrust into a carefully crafted and gleefully violent interpretation of New York that only Aster and nervous grandmothers could imagine. Automatic rifles are sold at stands on the street, eyes are gouged out in front of unbothered police officers, and the titular protagonist lives in a building with a nonchalant attitude toward the deadly brown recluse on the loose. In this chaotic atmosphere, it’s barely shocking that Beau narrowly avoids getting shot by a police officer only to get hit by a car and stabbed repeatedly while completely nude.

This car accident leads to another highlight of the film, the eerily tranquil home of Grace (Amy Ryan), Roger (Nathan Lane), and their daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers). The casting of this film is one of the key components of its strength. Every character is perfectly cast and delivers an amazing performance. The comedic abilities of Lane, Ryan, and Parker Posey are utilized to the greatest extent. Phoenix plays Beau with the hesitant cowardice of a terrified child and although 30% of his dialogue is just “What?”, he delivers it with nuance and great emotional range. He also follows the trend of Ari Aster characters with unique and horrific sobs (the cries of Toni Collete in Hereditary and Florence Pugh in Midsommar still haunt me to this day). Armen Nahapetian who plays the younger version of Beau gives such a convincing performance that most of the internet is still convinced he’s CGI. Finally, it goes without saying that Patti LuPone gives an incredible performance as Beau’s vindictive and controlling mother (also complemented beautifully by the performance of Zoe Lister-Jones). If there’s one subject Aster loves to explore in his work, it’s a dysfunctional family.

Ari Aster’s first true claim to fame wasn’t with his feature debut Hereditary, but with his viral and deeply disturbing short film, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. The film details a son’s sexual abuse of his father and these uncomfortable themes make themselves unspokenly apparent in Beau is Afraid. At the least, Mona Wasserman (LuPone and Lister-Jones) is an emotionally abusive and controlling mother with an unprecedented skill for passive aggression. However, signs from nightmares about baths, to a fear of sex and genitalia that manifests itself in let’s say… pretty large ways may be indicative of something even darker. Regardless of Aster’s specific intent, he ensures that audiences will be squirming with discomfort just like Beau does.

Beau’s deep-seated anxiety and fear of adult independence are the result of the constant demands and more importantly, surveillance from his mother.

!! Major spoilers for Beau is Afraid below !!

Even before the final reveal of the film, both Beau and the audience are vaguely aware of his feeling of being surveilled and controlled. Beau lives off his mother’s credit card, eating frozen meals (with the flavors of Hawaii and Ireland!) from his mother’s company, while fearfully living in the rehabilitative housing his mother created. He is completely isolated aside from the homeless population which threatens him. While being hit by a car may seem like a coincidence, being strapped to an ankle monitor doesn’t come as a shock and a close inspection of the employees printed over Mona’s portrait in her home reveals a familiar mustached surgeon. Even Elaine (played by Parker Posey and Julia Antonelli) is revealed to have been planted by Mona all along, furthering the uncomfortable oedipal nature of her abuse. While I found the Truman Show-esque finale jarring at first, it appropriately concludes the absurd and larger-than-life preceding events. It is a tragic yet fitting end for a man that could never change or escape the control and submission of his domineering mother.

Beau is Afraid, is certainly not for everyone. Its shocking runtime, phallic imagery, and violent humor are sure to turn many away. But for those wishing to hear a hilariously ominous Mariah Carey needle drop, Aster’s detailed construction of this film ensures a visually impressive and anxiety-inducing journey for all viewers.

Written by Mary Leer

bottom of page