May 28, 2023

Beau Is Afraid attempts to thrust viewers into what crippling anxiety, panic, and fear of the outside world is like—to the point where crossing the street to buy a bottle of water carries with it the stakes and tension of entering a demilitarized war zone. To Beau, the whole world is that bad, so the film demands we accept all of its fantastical elements at face value, because Beau and the film lack the tools to achieve self-awareness. The rest of the story, thus, becomes a parable about asking why Beau turned out to be such a doomed figure.

Suburban Lotus Eaters and an Old Flame on the Clock

The second act of the film might be my personal favorite. After being pancaked by the SUV of a suburban mother named Grace (Amy Ryan), Beau awakens three days later to discover that he is under a doctor’s care… and Grace’s husband, Doc Roger (Nathan Lane). By this point in the film, Beau has been led to believe that his mother, whom he failed to visit earlier in the week, has apparently died in a freak falling chandelier accident. He is desperate to go home, but Roger and Grace just will not allow it.

The more determined Beau becomes about returning home to at least attend his mother’s memorial and funeral, the more reasons Roger and Grace find to rebuff him—he needs to rest if his stitches are to heal (and when they burst, well, let’s not bother with replacing them); Roger then needs to see about a patient who’s had an emergency; and finally they just want to have a barbecue that will let Beau play the role of surrogate big brother to their teenage daughter (Kylie Rogers).

Slowly, but surely, Beau’s quest to get home to mama takes on the bent of an epic in the classical sense—a fact underscored later in the script when Beau mythologizes himself as a tragic hero during an extended animated fantasy sequence where he imagines his journey as only the beginning of many Herculean labors. In this way, comparisons to Homer’s The Odyssey are inescapable, right down to the uncomfortable parallels between Beau’s determination to see his mother, even in death, resembling Odysseus’ need to return to his wife.

Roger and Grace’s stalling tactics, which refuse to allow Beau to leave their slice of suburban paradise, likewise resembles the Lotus Eaters in The Odyssey, a diverse collection of inhabitants on an island whose primary source of food is a lotus fruit that makes them happily apathetic to the outside world. Roger and Grace seem to be attempting to lull Beau into complacency through the virtue of their calm, suburban, upper middle class lifestyle. And to be fair, compared to the nightmare of Beau’s NYC existence in the first act, it is a reprieve.

It is also a lie in multiple ways. First, there is the fact that Roger is supplying his family with drugs (a 21st century lotus plant) in an attempt to dull Grace’s sense of grief over her actual dead adult son, who was killed while serving in a Mideast war. Roger also uses pills as a way to control and neglect his teenage daughter who, like Beau, seems partially condemned by the sins of her parents’ care to a dark end (more on that in the next section).

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