‘Beau is Afraid’ Explained: Thank You, I’m Sorry

Beau is Afraid is filmmaker Ari Aster’s most ambitious movie yet. After watching, viewers will have a lot to process. This article helps interpret some of the movie’s most important moments.

Beau is Afraid (2023) is a story director Ari Aster had been thinking about telling for ten years.

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Written and directed by Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar), Beau is Afraid stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man with a myriad of problems. It is a complex film filled that challenges viewers to interpret its bizarre reality for themselves. This article offers one interpretation of many of the main points made throughout Beau is Afraid.

What is Beau is Afraid About?

Beau runs away in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau is repeatedly running away from someone or something.

At its core, Beau is Afraid is about a man’s relationship with his mother. That man is Beau, a schlubby, neurotic person whose entire life is shaped by his mother’s form of “love.” Throughout the film, we experience what it is like to be Beau as we take a journey with him through his entirely subjective point of view. What we see and hear in Beau is Afraid isn’t the reality we’re accustomed to. Rather, we see the world through a dream-like lens that urges us to feel rather than try to make logical sense of what is happening.

Ari Aster laughs about Beau is Afraid (2023).
As writer/director Ari Aster jokes, he wants to put the audience “in the experience of being a loser.”

The plot of Beau is Afraid involves Beau’s attempts to visit his mother at her home. In the beginning, Beau’s trip is meant to be his yearly visit to his mom on the anniversary of his father’s death. But when Beau misses his flight due to a series of bizarre circumstances, his plans change. Beau gets news that something awful happened to his mother, and now Beau is even more desperate to get to her house. Unfortunately, as Beau goes on a series of improbable adventures on his way to his mother’s house, it seems as if the entire world is trying to stop Beau from achieving his goal.

Part twisted fairy tale, part riff on a hero’s journey, Beau is Afraid is a nightmare comedy that works on multiple levels. The movie is dense with meaning and metaphors, but it also isn’t afraid of throwing heaps of crass comedy at the audience. As with all of Ari Aster’s movies so far, every frame is packed with details that invite investigation. Some of those investigations may lead to little more than a joke or reference, but others give viewers a greater understanding of the film’s main character. Few things are straightforward in Beau is Afraid, and that’s why it is so incredibly interesting.

The Story of Beau is Afraid, Explained

Beau looks at his phone in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Everyone’s experience will be different, but for those who are into the story of Beau is Afraid, three hours pass extremely quickly.

At roughly three hours long, there is a lot going on in Beau is Afraid. To explain everything in detail would take a long time, but to explain everything could also take away from the experience of watching the movie. Beau is Afraid isn’t a puzzle to be solved, it is a representation of emotions meant to be felt. The film is structured in a way that can lead to multiple interpretations, and differing interpretations can all be valid. With that in mind, the following explanations are meant to give one view of Beau is Afraid without discounting other views.

Beau is Afraid can be broken down into a few distinct chapters. To help keep everything organized and easier to follow, the following sections are separated by chapter with interpretations of each section’s main points. There is a lot more to explore, but this will give you a good overview of the movie. Plot explanations will be kept brief, so it’s probably best if you see the movie first before jumping in. Major spoilers lie ahead.

Beau’s Apartment: A Hostile World

Joaquin Phoenix stands in an elevator in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau is afraid to leave his apartment because of the dangerous people outside, but he’s afraid to stay inside his apartment because of a deadly spider on the loose.

Prior to Beau’s journey, we get to know Beau by joining him in a therapy session and seeing how he lives. From his reactions in therapy, we get the sense that Beau is burdened with a tremendous sense of guilt. We also get the sense that much of Beau’s guilt is related to his mother. Beau’s therapist gives him a new prescription for his anxiety, which really only gives Beau something new to worry about.

Beau's mother calls him in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau’s mom is quick to change her cheerful attitude to one of anger and blame when Beau tells her that he missed his flight.

When Beau goes to his apartment, we see the outside world as an incredibly hostile and callous place. People laugh about trying to get someone to jump to their death from a building, the streets are packed with people who are angry or self-absorbed, and a naked killer called “Birthday Boy Stab Man” is roaming the streets. It’s a comically dangerous world which fits Beau’s state of mind. He believes everyone is out to get him, and in his version of reality, it’s true.

Beau talks on the phone in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau knows that nothing he does will make his mother happy.

Beau’s apartment is in a rundown, graffiti-covered building. Much later in the movie, we learn that just about everything in Beau’s apartment is part of his mother’s business empire. The frozen food he eats, the dental floss he uses, and even the apartment building itself all come from his mother’s work. So, symbolically, even when separated, Beau is living in a world created by his mother. Beau is out of shape, so it’s clear the food isn’t terribly healthy. The apartment is drab and broken down, just like Beau. The apartment is a metaphor for Beau and his mental state, and the fact that it is created by his mother indicates that Beau’s own problems all begin and end with her. After all, Beau was also created and shaped by his mother.

Grace and Roger: A Surrogate Son

Beau wakes up injured in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Injured from being hit by a van and stabbed by Birthday Boy Stab Man, Beau wakes up Grace and Roger’s house.

After learning that his mother has been killed by a falling chandelier, Beau falls into a state of shock that is exacerbated by an intruder hiding in the ceiling of his bathroom. Beau runs out into the street for help and is hit by a van driven by a woman named Grace. Beau wakes up a couple of days later in the home of Grace and her husband Roger. Roger is a surgeon who has attended to Beau’s wounds, and the whole situation Beau finds himself in feels benevolent yet exceedingly odd.

Nathan Lane as Roger in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Roger seems nice most of the time, but can also make it very clear that there will be consequences if he doesn’t get his way.

Beau knows something is wrong right away when he notices the ankle monitor he wakes up with which Roger excuses as a health monitor. Beau doesn’t want to make waves though, so he just accepts what is given to him, conditions and all. As Beau’s stay at their home lengthens unexpectedly, it becomes clear that Roger and Grace don’t want Beau to leave. It turns out Grace and Roger had a son named Nathan whom they lost when he was killed in action while in the military. Grace in particular seems to want to keep Beau as their new son. At one point she hands Beau Nathan’s coffee cup before quickly drawing it back when Roger enters the room.

Jeeves stars at Beau in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Grace and Roger take care of Jeeves, a comrade of their son Nathan who was probably their first attempt at replacing their son.

Grace’s immediate attachment to Beau can be seen as analogous to his own mother’s unhealthy attachment that we learn about over the course of the movie. Grace appears to care for Beau unconditionally, and that makes Beau feel uneasy. Beau doesn’t know how to be loved, so Grace and Roger’s kindness confuses him. But of course, nothing in Beau’s life comes free of consequences. Beau, just by existing, is causing Toni, Grace and Roger’s daughter, intense pain. Beau hasn’t done anything (in fact, everything is being done to him), but his mere presence is disrupting this family. In the end, Beau is blamed for Toni’s suicide when, again, he did nothing.

Grace with paint on her face in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Grace, who earlier passed a note to Beau telling him not to “incriminate” himself, later blames Beau for Toni’s death when he didn’t do anything (though Beau’s inaction can be seen as contributing to her death).

But perhaps doing nothing is part of Beau’s problem, and it always has been. Beau has been conditioned to feel guilty for his actions and emotions, so he has gotten to the point where he puts the feelings of others before his own in every situation. When there is conflict, Beau freezes, allowing others to project their own emotions onto him. And Beau just takes it because he is too hobbled by guilt to stand up for himself. The vast number of times he says, “Thank you, I’m sorry” is an indicator of this.

The Orphans of the Forest: A Life Unlived

Beau walks through a play in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau placing himself in the play he watches in the forest could be seen as how Beau wishes he sees himself, but the rest of the movie is how he really sees himself.

After escaping from Grace and Roger’s house, Beau is lost in the woods. He comes across a traveling group of actors who put on a play. As Beau watches the performance, he imagines himself as the hero of the story. It is a story about a man who finds true love and forms a family, only to have that family taken away by forces beyond his control. The story ends with an elderly Beau coming upon the same play in the woods Beau is watching. Elderly Beau finds his three lost sons, all grown up. They come together in an emotional scene, but there is a problem…

Beau writes down his story in Beau is Afraid (2023).
The narration of the play mentions how the same story can be told in different ways from differing perspectives, suggesting that the “reality” of a story is less important than the way the story is told.

This sequence finally peels back some of the layers regarding Beau’s father. Beau’s mother told him that his father died when Beau was conceived. She says Beau’s father had a heart murmur that, in the moment of climax, killed him. She always told Beau that the heart murmur is hereditary and also affected his grandfather in the exact same way. For that reason, Beau has never been with a woman, and, when you think back to Roger’s comment about Beau’s distended testicles, he has never had an orgasm at all. He thinks he will die if he does.

Beau finds his three sons on stage in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Fantasy and “reality” crash together at the end of the play, but they can’t be reconciled with each other. That leads directly to Jeeves blowing everything up.

So if Beau has never had sex, how could he ever have three sons? Therein lies the paradox central to Beau’s life. He wants a fulfilling life, but he thinks he can’t have it. He expects an existence filled with pain and loss, and even his dreams end in heartbreak due to a deficiency within himself. But again, this all goes back to things his mother told him, things Beau begins to question.

Beau’s Mother’s House: A Test of Love

Parker Posey as Elaine in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau meeting Elaine at his mother’s house feels too coincidental to be a random occurrence, but in the reality of Beau is Afraid, anything is possible.

Finally arriving at his mother’s lavish house, Beau has just missed her funeral. He listens to a recording of her service in which he is further guilted for his absence, and he sees the headless body of what is supposed to be his mother. Beau recognizes the body as his mother’s former maid and not his mother, but this isn’t revealed to the audience yet. Beau lies down for a nap, but a woman enters the house twelve hours late for his mother’s funeral. Beau recognizes the woman as Elaine, Beau’s crush he met years ago when they were both young.

Beau and Mona on a cruise ship in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau frequently remembers the cruise where he met Elaine, and he also remembers how hurt his mother Mona was when she saw Beau and Elaine kiss.

Beau kisses Elaine, and that quickly leads to the two of them having sex in his mother’s bed. Beau thinks he’s going to die like his father did, but when he doesn’t, he is elated. Unfortunately, Elaine does die, further exemplifying Beau’s tragic life where every glimmer of hope is immediately suppressed. Making things worse is that Beau’s mother, Mona, is alive and was watching the whole time.

A photo of Elaine as a teenager in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau admits to Elaine that he did wait for her all these years. He means that physically since he has never been with a woman, but also emotionally since he’s never been able to connect with other people.

The whole situation with Elaine was a test of Beau’s love orchestrated by Mona. Mona faked her death by, as she tells it, giving her maid enough money so that her entire family can stop working. Mona essentially bought her maid’s life to fake her own death, just so she could guilt her own son into coming over for a visit. On top of that, though it isn’t explicitly stated, it’s entirely likely that Elaine isn’t really the Elaine whom Beau met as a teenager. “Elaine” worked for Mona (as shown on a poster featuring Mona’s employees), and she tells Beau that Mona owes her money. So, Mona hired “Elaine” to come over and test Beau’s loyalty and love. Beau’s mother was holding onto a grudge against a child Beau met decades ago simply for the fact that Beau showed her affection. This points to the terrifying depths of mental manipulation Mona must have inflicted on Beau his entire life.

Floating Away: Beau on Trial

Beau in a motorboat in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau is in a daze when he gets into the boat and floats away from his mother’s house.

After the incident with Elaine, and after Beau learns that his therapist was also bought by Mona to tell her everything Beau says about her, Beau finally starts to stand up for himself. He wants to know why Mona lied to him about his father, so Mona, in a rage, decides to reveal the truth to her son. The “truth” is revealed in the attic of Mona’s house where Beau’s emaciated twin and a giant penis monster reside (refer to the FAQ question about Beau’s dream for more on the twin, and we’ll let Beau’s penis-monster-father speak for itself).

Beau looks up as a huge set of screens broadcasting his trial in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Like the people seen towards the beginning of the movie laughing at a person threatening to jump from a building, the audience for Beau’s trial can be seen smiling.

Unable to control himself, Beau’s lifetime of bottled-up anger comes out in the form of his hands choking his mother. Startled at his own actions, Beau stops. It is apparently too late though, and Mona collapses to the floor. Beau leaves the house, getting into a small motorboat and floating away. While still in the boat, Beau finds himself in an auditorium where he is put on trial for his lifetime of crimes against his mother. With an audience watching in gleeful anticipation, Mona’s lawyer loudly lists the injustices Beau has perpetrated against his mother. Beau’s own lawyer can barely be heard and is eventually tossed into the water. The movie ends with the motor on Beau’s boat exploding, capsizing the boat and drowning Beau.

Beau looks up from his motorboat in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Like the protagonists of Ari Aster’s previous films, Beau is doomed from the start.

Beau’s trial is a representation of his own feelings of guilt. His protestations of his innocence are barely audible and completely drowned out by the misdeeds he is told that he has done. If he doesn’t love his mother in the way she wants to be loved, he feels guilty. If he does anything for himself, he feels guilty. No matter what he does or doesn’t do, he feels guilty. In Beau’s mind, he is guilty of all these crimes. These feelings, instilled by his mother, ultimately destroy Beau mentally and physically.

Frequently Asked Questions

Mona and Beau's twin argue in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau’s recurring dream is revealed to be a memory by his mother, but memory is fallible, and Beau’s reality is skewed by his own perspective.

What does Beau’s recurring dream mean?

Beau has a recurring dream in which he is in a bathtub as a child while his mother argues with what appears to be Beau’s twin. We see more of the dream as the movie goes on, with the dream ending with the argumentative twin being locked in the attic of Mona’s home. While this dream can be seen as a memory (which Mona says it is), it can also have a deeper meaning.

The dream shows us a pivotal moment in Beau’s life. The twins can be seen as the two sides of Beau himself, his submissive side and his assertive side. This moment in the bathtub is the moment in Beau’s life when his assertive side was locked away forever. From that point on, Beau accepted whatever his mother did to him. This is the moment that led Beau to become the neurotic mess that he is.
Beau's twin in Beau is Afraid (2023).
Beau’s twin seen in the attic is credited as being played by an actor named Julien Fortin, but he clearly looks like Joaquin Phoenix.

Is Beau an only child?

When Beau is listening to his mother’s funeral service, it is stated that Beau is Mona’s “only surviving” child. When someone dies, their living family members are usually referred to as “surviving relatives,” so this could just mean that Beau is her only son, who is also a living relative. But in the context of Beau’s dream and the twin he finds in Mona’s attic, it could also mean Beau had a sibling, but as far as anyone was told, that sibling is dead. It’s all open to interpretation.

What does the statue Beau buys represent?

Beau buys a porcelain statue of a mother holding a baby to give to his mom as a gift on the anniversary of his father’s death. The statue is broken when Beau drops it, but Grace glues it back together. An obvious symbol is that Beau’s relationship with his mother is irreparably broken, and what he carries with him are the shattered remains of what a mother/son relationship should be.

The fact that his mother has the same statue, only much, much bigger, in the yard of her home shows how Mona’s view of their relationship is completely different from Beau’s perspective. It also shows how Mona’s “love” for her son is a dominant part of her life that casts a huge shadow.

Is the strange man in the forest Beau’s father?

While Beau is in the woods with the Orphans of the Forest, a strange man introduces himself. He says he knew Beau’s father and that he is still alive. When Jeeves attacks and everyone flees, Beau seems to think that the strange man is his father. Whether the man knew Beau’s father or is Beau’s father remains a mystery, but the important part of this section of the story is that it begins to sow seeds of doubt in Beau’s mind about his mother.

Is there a post-credits scene in Beau is Afraid?

No, there is nothing after the credits in Beau is Afraid. The credits run over the final image of the movie, but when the credits are over the screen fades to black.

Is Beau is Afraid a comedy?

You could consider Beau is Afraid a dark comedy. Some people might even call it a “tragicomedy.” Not everyone will find it funny, but it is intended to be a “nightmare comedy” as it has been referred to occasionally.

Is Beau is Afraid a horror movie?

Though there are plenty of horrific moments, it would be difficult to categorize Beau is Afraid as a straightforward horror film. Psychological horror may be more appropriate, but even that feels weird. Beau is constantly afraid, but the intent isn’t necessarily to instill fear in the audience. So, you could call Beau is Afraid horror if you want, but it is definitely the least horror of Ari Aster’s films so far.
Billy Mayo as Beau in "Beau" (2011).
Billy Mayo starred in Ari Aster’s short films “Beau” and the infamous “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.”

Is Beau is Afraid a remake of Ari Aster’s short film “Beau”?

Ari Aster does not consider Beau is Afraid as a remake of “Beau.” In an interview with Collider, Aster spoke about how “Beau” was a “slap-together” shot he made as an exercise and because he wanted to film something in his apartment. Some of the ideas in “Beau” trickled into Beau is Afraid, but the full movie is a story that grew way beyond the limited ideas of the short.

Ari Aster first developed the script for Beau is Afraid around 2014, and the final film differs even from that version of the story. Even so, it’s fun to look back at “Beau” and see where the seed of an idea started. Unfortunately, “Beau” is now incredibly hard to find since multiple takedowns were issued in the months prior to the release of Beau is Afraid, but you can see a brief write-up on that and other shorts from Ari Aster here: Ari Aster Movies: Tales of Family, Darkness, and Pitch Black Humor

What is Beau scared about?

Beau is scared of everything. Other people, human contact, lack of human contact, his health, everything. But most of all, Beau is scared of disappointing his mother.

What is Beau us Afraid rated R for?

Officially, Beau is Afraid is rated R for “strong violent content, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language.”

Is Beau is Afraid on Netflix?

No, Beau is Afraid isn’t on Netflix. It is currently only in theaters. There is no information yet on when or where it will be available to stream.

The Cast of Beau is Afraid

Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wassermann in Beau is Afraid (2023).
During development, Beau is Afraid was known by the title Disappointment Blvd.
  • Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wassermann, the protagonist of the movie.
  • Patty Lupone as Mona Wassermann, Beau’s mother and the main source of his neuroses.
  • Parker Posey as Elaine Bray, Beau’s long-lost love whom he waited for.
  • Zoe Lister-Jones as Young Mona
  • Armen Nahapetian as Teen Beau
  • Julia Antonelli as Teen Elaine
  • Amy Ryan as Grace, the woman who hopes to keep Beau as her surrogate son.
  • Nathan Lane as Roger, Grace’s husband.
  • Kylie Rogers as Toni, Grace and Roger’s daughter who is jealous of and angry at Beau.
  • Denis Ménochet as Jeeves, a former member of Grace and Roger’s son’s Army unit who suffers from PTSD.
  • Stephen McKinley Henderson as Beau’s Therapist, who is secretly recording Beau’s sessions to share with Mona.
  • Richard King as Dr. Cohen, who acts as Mona’s lawyer when Beau is put on trial.
  • Bill Hader as UPS Guy, the person who finds “Mona” dead in her house.

Further Reading

Meet The Author

Chris has a degree in film studies at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo, Japan. He is a renowned expert on horror cinema.