“I really thought I was gonna die, my whole life.”
A darling of the A24 production company, writer/director Ari Aster’s third feature is A24’s most expensive to date, an anxiety-ridden, absurdist dark comedy that displays flashes of brilliance within its messy and often inscrutable three hours. Ostensibly about a man’s fraught journey home to visit his mother, Beau is repeatedly waylaid by strangers in a narratively loose series of surreal events in the vein of the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Though? This is not so direct an adaptation of The Odyssey but its influence is evident. Pawel Pogorzelski, who has shot all of Aster’s feature films, has his work cut out here as each sequence adopts a wildly different style, from the agoraphobic terror of a city block and a sitcom-bright house in the suburbs to a nighttime forest and a vibrantly saturated handmade landscape of cardboard set dressing — it must have been like shooting a dozen short films at once. The through-line is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the neurotic Beau, though this is far from his best work as he stumbles through in dazed paranoia. More interesting are the repeated glimpses of his mother and his childhood as the source of his fragile state, with memories bubbling to the surface, often literally emerging through water. Presented entirely from Beau’s unreliable perspective, Aster provides little opportunity for the viewer to find their footing within this heightened reality — a challenging experience that some will relish. As the credits appear over an audience silently shuffling out of a vast auditorium, there is no question that Beau is Afraid is an audacious endeavour but it is hard to tell if we have travelled any distance at all.
“Can we have one spontaneous conversation where my dialogue doesn’t end up in your next story?”
Noah Baumbach’s ear for overlapping dialogue is already evident in his debut film, though Kicking and Screaming’s graduate pseudo-intellectual malaise is derivative of a host of films about stalled adolescence. Its loose approach is at times reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s early work like Slacker and Dazed and Confused, but there is less experimentation in the film-making. Dialogue is plainly the primary strength, Baumbach allowing his characters to work through their issues out loud whilst he also acknowledges their artifice, typically when one is abruptly undercut by another who sees through their façade. Though witty, these are not eruditely word perfect characters, nor is that necessary with familiarity (“You know what I mean. We all know what we mean.” referring to both the friendship group and the audience). Kicking and Screaming is fittingly aimless for graduates waiting for life to begin, only Eric Stoltz’s perennial student understanding that it already has. Baumbach’s exploration of these ideas may be covering well-trodden ground but it does so in a sufficiently engaging way.
“Are we losing interest in things that matter? Words on a page, for instance. Maybe that’s not so important. What about everyday life? Are we losing interest in everyday life?”
The central theme to Kogonada’s understated yet moving debut is interest — what we find interesting and what we ignore, and the way that interests can connect or separate us from those in our lives. Jin is exploring the architecture of Columbus, Indiana in an effort to understand his comatose father, who had always been more interested in architecture than in his son. It leads Jin to connect with Casey, a graduate with a genuine passion for the buildings that most locals take for granted (“You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing”). The cinematography is exquisite, using architecture to accentuate how we view characters within those spaces, such as isolating subjects by shooting them at a distance in the narrow frame of a series of doorways. The meticulous use of symmetry is a recurring motif Kogonada has adopted from Wes Anderson (he directed a video essay on Anderson’s centered framing), and he frequently uses extended takes from a fixed perspective. Haley Lu Richardson had some strong supporting roles in The Edge of Seventeen and Split, before taking the lead in Columbus alongside the excellent John Cho. Both actors exude quiet grief in different ways — Jin is openly bitter about his childhood whilst Casey’s inner turmoil lies in guilt over the desire to leave her mother. Their unexpected and fortuitous connection is occasionally reminiscent of Bob and Charlotte in Lost in Translation, which is the highest praise as I can give for such roles.
“If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life — remind me to kill myself.”
Following a group of high school students on the last day of school in the summer of 1976, I found this initially uncomfortable viewing because of the seemingly uncritical view of socially condoned violence. In fact this is more verisimilitude as Linklater accurately captures the aimless desires and insecurities of adolescence at a specific point in time.