The 1989 cult favorite works as a shorter, and possibly stranger, alternative to A24's splashy "Beau Is Afraid"


or Dr. Sigmund Freud, the pioneering and controversial great-grandfather of modern psychology, childhood was a fertile ground sown with the seeds of sex and self-consciousness. Early traumas witnessed by the child became anxieties and neuroses nurtured by the man (or, in many of Freud’s early case studies, the woman). They draw from an alphabet of coping mechanisms—making-believe, acting out, withdrawal—that lay dormant for years on end, festering well into adulthood, only to reemerge when their number comes up on the roulette wheel of emotional upset.

In a post-industrial, post-modern, and post-Freudian wasteland of public thought, we’ve adopted a strange mish-mash of extremes. Children are a precious resource sent to their unwitting deaths in public schools, mall parking lots, houses of worship, and parades. The fantasy of a boundlessly exploratory age settles in the bottom-silt of smart devices and spyware-laden social media apps. Where once exhortations to “use your imagination” or “dream big” were commonplace in children’s media, our now permanently-precarious reality has flipped the script, training our youth for a lifetime of labor and streaming marathons on the couch. No wonder so many otherwise mature adults yearn for a promised land devoid of responsibility and disappointment. 

If we consider a child’s imagination as a vast, untrammeled landscape, adulthood is the barbed wire fence. Where once a lush, green expanse spread to the horizon, now free-grazing is hemmed in by grown-up life and its myriad indignities. Experts and pundits increasingly look to modern capitalism as an explanation for our pervasive ennui, but whether this recent development provides an all-purpose answer is still up for debate. Just a generation prior, speculation laid this blame at the feet of an altogether different ür-villain for our collective neuroses: the undefeatable, awesome force of an overbearing mother. Though contemporary trends have shifted away from this admittedly sexist, hyper-convenient devil, the specter of the “refrigerator mother” continues to haunt our fictional lives.

Consider wunderkind Ari Aster’s latest behemoth, Beau is Afraid, a source of considerable tongue-wagging online and off. The bildungsroman finds titular Beau, an overgrown, anxiety-riddled manchild, dodging one catastrophe after another in a vain attempt to visit his disengaged, selfish mother. Clocking in at three hours, the wandering yarn is an unflinching look at one man’s deeply-distorted psyche—and unashamedly points the finger at Mommie Dearest for her son’s mental instability. If the prospect of spending a quarter of your waking hours in Beau’s company is a turn-off, take comfort: to borrow a bit of outmoded online parlance, “We have Beau is Afraid at home.”

Considerably shorter than A24’s splashy new release, and streaming for free on Tubi (with ads), Ate de Jong’s 1989 cult favorite Drop Dead Fred is a heroine’s journey down the primrose path of trauma excavation with a tone on the razor’s edge between manic laughter and hysterical tears. As Elizabeth “Lizzie” Cronin, star Phoebe Cates is both luminous and relatable: swimming in frumpy Laura Ashley shirt dresses, cuckolded by her smarmy car dealer husband, and sifting through the meager fruits of a disappointing adulthood. Left adrift from the fracture of her marriage, a car theft, and the loss of her job (all on one fateful lunch break!) Lizzie is reduced to a helpless child. Mother arrives right on cue to whisk her baby girl back to the ancestral nest. Once firmly installed in her preserved-in-amber girlhood bedroom, Lizzie’s mental health begins to… if not unravel outright, certainly undergo a life-altering change. When her childhood imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred—a fire-haired specter played by Rik Mayall in peak form—emerges after a decades-long absence, Lizzie is confronted with a last-ditch effort to right long-suppressed childhood wrongs. 

Lizzie’s impotent rage at her newly co-dependent reality, exacerbated by close proximity to her overbearing mother, manifests itself in Fred’s antics, which only she can see. Cates’ performance as the stunted womanchild turns on a dime from deeply moving to outright slapstick. Unable to release the anger inside herself, Lizzie becomes a “helpless” instrument of a fabricated person’s id, her body the physical manifestation of Fred’s chaos, whose anarchic antics run from interrupting serious conversations to raining spaghetti upon adjacent diners at an upscale restaurant. This literal pliability belies an emotional amorphousness that quite neatly explains her limited adult relationships. It’s telling that Lizzie refuses to find inspiration in the free-wheeling life of her sole adult friend, Janie—a sexy, boat-residing Carrie Fisher, whose floating bachelorette pad falls victim to Fred’s unhinged mischief. 

Periodic flashbacks to Lizzie’s unhappy childhood draws a painful throughline from Fred’s appearance to her parents’ divorce, which ultimately causes the sudden absence of her imaginary friend. Traumatic moments in the past have a direct corollary in her unstable present, slowly revealing a bitter, contentious rivalry between mother and daughter. Having exhausted her limited repertoire (denial, condescension, even a makeover), Mrs. Cronin calls in the nuclear option: dragging her grown daughter to a child psychologist specializing in the “invisible friend condition.” To Lizzie’s credit, she makes a valiant effort: showing off her “womanly” figure in form-fitting suits and clumsily confronting her husband’s mistress at a very grown-up “wine gala.” Her desire to shed these old habits comes from a place of genuine need. Unmoored from the safe harbor of a traditional adult life, Lizzie’s future is reduced to one of two poles: empty heteronormative consumption or unbridled, toddler-like impulse. In true fairytale fashion, redemption finds her in the form of a man es machina: a chance encounter with a newly-divorced childhood pal offers an escape from mother’s grip and a fresh start with a kind soul. 

Thoroughly panned upon its release, this occasionally overwrought and slightly cloying adult fairytale succeeds in spite of its dimestore psychoanalysis and fixation on the scatalogical. In one especially heart-wrenching scene, Lizzie is “Yellow Wallpaper”-ed back to girlhood, ensconced in the womb-like folds of a princess-pink bedspread, while her neurotic mother slips antipsychotics into a very grown-up dinner of steamed broccoli. Mrs. Cronin is determined to destroy Drop Dead Fred at any cost, even at the expense of Lizzie’s identity, by breaking down her daughter’s autonomy and rebuilding it as a carbon copy of herself. Poop and barf jokes aside, Lizzie’s infantilization is the film’s true perversion. Powerful forces in this world—cruel and petty parents, pill-pushing psychaitrists, duplicitous spouses, and unsympathetic bosses—need the vulnerable in order to feel valuable. But let's not forget the Lizzies among us, bedeviled by heartbreak and loss, who learn to love themselves the hard way.

Drop Dead Free is available to stream for free (with ads) on Tubi. It's also available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple TV, Vudu, Google Play, and Redbox.

Caroline Golum is a filmmaker and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She is a contributing editor and occasional podcast guest for Screen Slate. Her debut feature, "A Feast of Man" is streaming on Amazon Prime, Vimeo, and Tubi. Her second feature, "Revelations of Divine Love," is in post-production. You can follow her on Twitter @carolineavenue.

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